The ethics of panhandling

National Public Radio (NPR)
August 18, 2005
Copyright 2005 National Public Radio (R)All Rights Reserved

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

`Brother, can you spare a dime?' Inflation has adjusted that Depression-era plea, but even in small-town America these days, panhandlers ask us for money. It's sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes bothersome, sometimes maddening, sometimes all three. In Atlanta this week, the City Council voted to ban panhandlers from certain parts of downtown. The mayor is expected to agree. Other cities have passed similar ordinances, but in the rest of those cities and in the rest of the country, it leaves us to wrestle with an internal debate: If we give something, will the money be used for food or for alcohol or drugs? Are you helping out a neighbor down on his or her luck, or helping to sustain an unhealthy and unproductive lifestyle?

Now we are talking about panhandlers as opposed to musicians, mimes, jugglers or other kinds of street performers. What do you think about when a beggar hits you up for cash? Do you weigh morals, ethics, compassion, your religious beliefs, your guilt? How do you think about it? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Later in the program, we'll hear from an Army colonel about the frustrating delays providing the latest body armor to troops in Iraq, and we'll talk with a member of an all-black Little League team that was barred from playing in the Little League World Series in 1955.

But first, the ethics of giving--or not--to panhandlers. We begin with Sister Mary Scullion, the executive director of Project HOME, which is focused on ending homelessness in Philadelphia. She has extensive experience with the plight of the homeless and understands the hardships faced by those hustling for money on the street. She joins us now from her office in Philadelphia.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Sister MARY SCULLION (Executive Director, Project HOME): Thanks, Neal. It's great to be with you, as well.

CONAN: And I understand one of the things--when we first approached you, you pointed out to us that not all panhandlers are homeless, and not all homeless panhandle. The two terms are not synonymous.

Sr. SCULLION: Exactly.

CONAN: Now I wonder, as somebody who's involved with these people a lot, when you see somebody on the street asking for money, do you give them money?

Sr. SCULLION: Most of the time, I don't, but I do, you know, talk with them and find out what they need and then try to respond, you know, to what they're asking for, whether they need a ride or they need a meal or they need a place to stay, and provide them with, you know, ultimately, you know, what they want.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Sr. SCULLION: And sometimes, many times, the person'll, you know, be appreciative of that, but sometimes a person--the only thing that will satisfy them is, you know, the money itself. And, you know, usually in that case, I don't do it. But then there's also times when people want money, and I know the people because I've known them, you know, from the street, that I do give money do. You know, they need an ID, they need the money for, you know, some, you know, particular reason.

CONAN: It sounds to me as if one of the things, at least, forefront in your mind is compassion.

Sr. SCULLION: Well, you know, definitely compassion. You know, I am moved personally by the plight of so many people on our streets and in shelters, and I think so many other people in the United States are moved, as well. And it's the compassion that leads to action that leads to, you know, some kind of healing or movement that I think makes, you know, the most amount of sense.

CONAN: I wonder, wouldn't the money be better off if you donated it to your own organization?

Sr. SCULLION: Well, no. I mean, to be honest, I don't--you know, I mean, I hope that people--and people often do donate to Project HOME, you know, for a variety of reasons and, you know, we certainly appreciate that and need the resources. But I think it's that personal element that when you meet another human being and they asked you for something, that you respond to them, because it's affirming, like, the dignity of each person and, you know, that we're both adults, we're both, you know, human beings. And if another person needs or wants to talk to me, I can talk to them and, you know, it's like a back-and-forth. It's a relationship thing. So I think we do need to respond to one another personally in a direct way.

CONAN: Even though you must know that a certain percent of the time you're getting scammed.

Sr. SCULLION: That's right, because addiction is a scam and it's a lie, and when--at the root of the--you know, people asking for money--it's really to feed their addiction. Addiction is a disease, and so, as another human being, I need to be able to respond to that disease and, you know, separate it from the person but, like, just act truthfully, act, you know, intelligently, respond to what, you know, you see in front of you.

CONAN: You also watch--must see in your work a lot of us as we either brush past or engage with people asking for money. I wonder what you think.

Sr. SCULLION: Well, I think that one of the most degrading experiences--and people on the street, you know, have said that--is that they become invisible and that when people walk by them they don't even see them anymore, or they look at them with some kind of disgust. You know, a man on the street, strolling, said to me that `We're each other's mirrors, and how we look at each other is how we see ourselves.' So in seeing another human being there, that's, you know, an important message to give, as opposed to just being disgusted or, you know, not even seeing people there at all; they've become invisible to us on some level.

CONAN: So that even if you've decided for whatever reason that you shouldn't give them money, maybe a smile, maybe a word.

Sr. SCULLION: Exactly, or just say, `You know, I'm not going to give you money because, you know, I just don't, you know, agree with it or, you know, but what I'd be happy to do is, you know, get you something to eat,' or `I just don't have it today' or `I just don't have the time,' or just be honest with people. I think, you know, that's ultimately what we have to give to each other, is acknowledging each other's dignity as human beings and being honest with one another. That's...

CONAN: Sister Mary, thank you so much for your time today.

Sr. SCULLION: OK, Neal. Take good care.

CONAN: Thank you.

Sr. SCULLION: Bye.

CONAN: Sister Mary Scullion is executive director of Project HOME in Philadelphia. She joined us by phone from her office there.

If you'd like to join the conversation, (800) 989-8255; e-mail is totn@npr.org. And let's get a caller on the line. This is Suzanne, Suzanne calling from San Francisco.

SUZANNE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Suzanne. What goes through your mind when...

SUZANNE: Oh...

CONAN: ...a panhandler approaches you.

SUZANNE: Oh, well, I grew up in New York, so panhandlers were everywhere. And so I--exactly what the--your guest was saying before, is that you end up just not seeing them. So I finally came to a point where I said, `Well, I know there's all these people out there and I want to do something,' so I started looking at their sneakers, and if they had better sneakers than me I didn't give them money. So that was my little funny comment on this.

But I live in San Francisco now, and typically what I do is I'll--you know, if I have leftovers or something like that, I'll give it to them. And they actually will give you a ticket if you do that. You're supposed to actually go and buy food for them.

CONAN: I see. All right.

SUZANNE: Anyway, just a comment.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Suzanne, and good lu--keep your sneakers up to date.

SUZANNE: Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Reggie Gordon works with those who beg on the street in Richmond, Virginia, where he coordinates services for the needy. He was once a frequent giver and has since decided not to dole out cash to panhandlers. He joins us now from South Beach in Florida.

Thanks very much--taking time off from your vacation.

Mr. REGGIE GORDON (Executive Director, Homeward): Oh, sure. My pleasure.

CONAN: All right. Appreciate it. What changed your mind about giving?

Mr. GORDON: Well, I lived in Washington for several years, and I would often see people panhandling near the Metro stops, and I felt compelled to give because I had change in my pocket and they asked me for some change. And then one day I stopped and asked the gentleman that I was giving a quarter to--I must--said, `Well, what are you going to do with this quarter?' He just looked at me and said, `Well, I need more than that, but nobody will give me more than that.' And I said, `What do you need it for?' And he said, `I need it for housing.' So, actually, I had an in-depth conversation with him and learned about his life and how he ended up on the street after being released from prison.

So fast-forward to 1998, and I'm living and working in Richmond with an organization called Homeward that brings together the community to look at solutions for homelessness, and as we have peeled back the layers to the complex issue of homelessness, I remembered that conversation. And I've gone full circle to say: The worst thing you can do is give someone money to preserve them in their status as a street person. I think it's time for our country and our different cities across the nation to move away from the old version of the street person to what are the solutions, so that we don't have anyone on the streets of America. And that means finding prevention strategies to keep them housed or finding exit strategies to get them into housing permanently.

CONAN: Yet you know that's not going to come in time for somebody who hasn't had a meal in a couple of days.

Mr. GORDON: Sure. One thing that we did learn in our community--and I probably--it's probably safe to say this happens in most of our cities. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is served through the efforts of generous volunteers and organizations and congregations, so that it's pretty impossible for someone to starve to death on the streets of our city and our region, and probably in other places across the country. So I think if I were in the situation where I needed food, and this--mind you, this does not happen overnight. It takes weeks, months, years to end up on the street, unless you're evicted due to fire or natural disaster. So you would think that, if you have--you know, if you're mentally stable, that you would seek out the police or a church or someplace to help you with food, so you wouldn't have to ask a stranger for some money in order to get food.

CONAN: What do you see panhandlers doing to try to get more attention, to get more money?

Mr. GORDON: Pardon?

CONAN: Do you see panhandlers--different tactics that they use to try to get more money?

Mr. GORDON: Yes. I have a gentleman who is on the board of my organization who used to be a panhandler. Now he lives in the suburbs and married, has a family. But he said during those days when he was addicted to crack--and this is back to the disease of addiction, like the sister mentioned earlier--he became very skilled at how to create the perfect pitch to get the money out of the pocket from the person coming toward him on the street. And you have to be pretty adept at looking at a passer-by to determine which story would work best on that individual, because your objective as a panhandler, he told me, and as a person struggling with the addiction, is to get the money that you need in order to buy your drug or alcohol. So it's a skill. I couldn't do it, but there are people who are really good at marketing--I guess that's one way to look at it--who know how to make the right story to tug on your heartstring.

And that's a problem for me. And as I've really gotten into this issue and learned about the many--continuum of services for people in most cities, it takes an effort to say that `There are no services that can help me. My last resort is to ask a complete stranger for some money.'

CONAN: Reggie Gordon, we appreciate your time today.

Mr. GORDON: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: Reggie Gordon, executive director of Homeward in Richmond, Virginia. He joined us by phone from South Beach in Florida.

When we come back from a short break, we're going to continue our conversation about what you think about when you approach a panhandler or when one approaches you. What are your--debate goes on inside your head? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And we're talking today about that internal debate triggered every time we see a panhandler. Should we give them money? Should we not give them money? If we give it to them, will they use it for drugs and alcohol, or for food or for shelter? Is it appropriate to support an unproductive lifestyle? `Maybe I should give it to them to make me feel better.' If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Steve from San Antonio, Texas, e-mailed us: `In my opinion, when I'm approached by a panhandler, if I have extra money--I'm a college student and don't always have much--I will give it to them. A few bucks here or there isn't going to really do me any harm. I hear other people say that I'm not really helping at all, but I think: Who am I to judge? So what if this guy or gal goes out to buy food or beer? I hope they think of me as they drink it. Thanks very much.'

Well, in the Jewish faith, as in most faith, there's a strong tradition of response to the poor. Joining us now is Eliezer Segal. He's a religious studies professor and Jewish scholar at the University of Calgary.

Thanks very much for joining us today.

Professor ELIEZER SEGAL (University of Calgary): It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder, do you give to panhandlers yourself?

Prof. SEGAL: Usually not.

CONAN: How come?

Prof. SEGAL: For a lot of the reasons that have been expressed here so far. There is a part of me that wants to cultivate compassion. It's something that's been built into me for a long time through my own training, but ultimately, there is a realization that there are social institutions that are designed to equitably and efficiently distribute the wealth; and that, since I have reason to suspect that the person that I'm giving it to may not be using it in the best possible way, if I do concede and give it to them, then I will be depriving more deserving people of the same resources.

CONAN: It sounds like a moral judgment, to some degree.

Prof. SEGAL: Well, it's a practical moral judgment. I think the ultimate goals of compassion and making better lives for people are not really being argued here, but it's a question of what's the best means to achieve that end?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What does Jewish tradition tell us about modern-day panhandling?

Prof. SEGAL: I'm not sure that it's always consistent. Certainly, the Bible says explicitly--and it may have a picture of some sort of panhandler in mind-- that when you see a poor person, a person in need, you should not withdraw your hand, that you should give to them. As we get into a later period and society becomes more complex, there are very elaborate systems of social welfare for both the collection of money and foodstuffs for the poor and, more importantly, probably--for the distribution, that are set up in every town and every village, and a certain proportion of one's produce is supposed to go into these. The biblical laws, in fact, are really almost all speaking about agricultural produce, that the poor should have access to parts of the field and things of that sort. When we get to a later period, there's something closer to what we find in our communities, or even in government bodies, as far as distributing food on daily, weekly, monthly basis. And people are expected to participate in that.

CONAN: Am I hearing that it's OK to ask, but it's also OK to say no?

Prof. SEGAL: For individuals, generally the preference is to give to an institution rather than to an individual. For that matter, there are other preferences. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher, gives a gradation of different types of charity, and he says that by far the highest level is not to give a donation at all but to give a loan. There is a lot of concern to maintain the dignity of the recipient, and I think just giving money to a panhandler is possibly the most degrading way of treating them. Maimonides also prefers that there not be personal contact so that you don't embarrass the recipient, that there should be some kind of impersonal or at least anonymous way of handing out money.

CONAN: To preserve their dignity. That's interesting. Thank you very much.

Prof. SEGAL: OK.

CONAN: Eliezer Segal is a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, author of "Ask Now of the Days That Are Past," and he joined us from his office there in Canada.

Let's get some more listeners on the line. This is Evelyn, Evelyn calling from Denver, Colorado.

EVELYN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead. You're on the air, Evelyn. Go ahead.

EVELYN: Hi. Well, I'm very interested in this conversation and this issue,a because, you know, like every other city--we're a large city and we have panhandlers at every corner.

CONAN: And what do you do when you see one of them?

EVELYN: Well, I'm a giver. I am a big giver. And I do it in many different ways. Sometimes I give money, if I have money. I usually have, like, a little pile of ones in my glove compartment to just give, and I always give more than just $1. I always give $2 or $3. And there are times when somebody has touched me and I give them everything I have, which might be 8 bucks. And I think the most I've ever given was maybe $20, $22. It just depends on the situation, but sometimes if I see that they look like they're hungry, I'll go and stop at a fast-food place and buy food for them and then come around and give them food.

In the wintertime I have my glove com--my trunk--with coats, if I see somebody is cold, needs a coat--blankets. That's me.

CONAN: That's you.

EVELYN: Yeah.

CONAN: Why give it to them directly, as opposed to providing money to an organization?

EVELYN: Because I know that it's going directly to the person who needs it. You know, when I give to an organization, I don't know how much of what I give, moneywise, clothingwise, goes to the person who actually needs it.

CONAN: Hmm. And how does it ma--does it make you feel good to give this money away?

EVELYN: It makes me feel good, but I do it in the spirit of tithing, because I tithe to my church but I don't--my main sense of tithing is to the homeless and the needy. That's how I tithe.

CONAN: Evelyn, thanks very much. We appreciate the phone call.

EVELYN: You're quite welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Here's an e-mail from Matt in Cleveland: `I'm a young man in Cleveland. I have never given money to someone who is asking for it directly. I have given to performers, but that's the extent of my giving. I'm ashamed to say it, but I will avoid most panhandlers when I can, crossing the street, keeping from eye contact, etc. Morally, I wish I could contribute to these people that are down on their luck and my heart goes out to them; the problem is, I keep hearing stories about panhandlers who are scam artists. One particular story is giving money to a panhandler, then watching him go into an alley and drive out in a nearly new BMW. I would ask the caller if she has seen this, and if not, where could these types of rumors have been started?'--that, apparently, a reference to one of our earlier guests in the program.

Panhandlers are a fact of life in urban America, even in some small towns. Some may never have seen a beggar until they leave the hometown for a vacation or a work convention. Will Manley was attending a conference of librarians several years ago in New Orleans. He overheard an elevator conversation between two librarians about beggars. Forty floors later, the librarians had come up with some solutions. Will Manley wrote about them in an article that appeared in American Libraries magazine. He joins us now from Tempe, Arizona, where he's city manager.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. WILL MANLEY (City Manager, Tempe, Arizona): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And it took only 40 floors to come up with solutions?

Mr. MANLEY: Well, it was one solution for every 10 floors. They came up with a matrix of four different options. And, you know, I was a librarian for many, many years before I became a city manager, and the issue of the homeless and panhandlers is near and dear to the heart of many librarians. They're very good-hearted people, and they want to do the right thing. And our public libraries are filled with, you know, homeless people, and so I think there's a lot of compassion in that profession.

But they came up with four options that I thought were intriguing. One was that they were going to, first of all, decide they could do without $15 of their per diem meal money from their library and give it to the homeless, which I thought was pretty generous...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MANLEY: ...and that the option one was to just pick out the first panhandler and give them the $15. You know, the advantage there is that buys a person a good, warm meal and makes a substantial difference in that person's quality of life that day. Then the next option was to do $2 to every 10th panhandler, with, you know, the sort of biblical tithing theme that...

CONAN: I see. OK.

Mr. MANLEY: Every 10th panhandler gets $2. The third was to just break it down to--give everyone they encountered a nickel, and that, of course, in addition to being a little bit awkward, carrying that much coin around, is--that doesn't really--it kind of dilutes the effect of charity. And then the fourth one was--typical librarian--give the nickel, but a nickel's worth of advice, which was the address of the nearest public library.

CONAN: Now you actually rated these solutions.

Mr. MANLEY: (Laughs) I--yeah. Well, I gave the pros and cons. I'm not sure decided which was the best. I'm a little--personally, I'm a little like the woman that just talks to you. I'm a--I have, I guess, a kind of identification with the homeless. It's `But for the grace of God, there I could be,' you know? I've been blessed with great parents and advantages, and--but I can see myself, you know, under different circumstances, ending up on the street.

CONAN: As a city...

Mr. MANLEY: So I do have that sense of, you know, these people do need some help, and it's immediate. It's one thing to have a payroll deduction to a charitable organization; it's another thing to be confronted right here in front of you with somebody who needs your help and is desperate enough to ask for that help.

CONAN: As a city planner, though--city manager--you're aware that these people do cause problems?

Mr. MANLEY: Oh, yeah. And it's a very, very big problem, because in Tempe we have a very dynamic downtown, and one of the problems is it is a public space and, therefore, it does draw a fair amount of homeless and panhandlers. And shoppers don't like that because they're used to private shopping malls, where the homeless are banned. So it is a difficult thing, and the other thing is that the homeless have rights. They have rights to be in public spaces. And so it's very tricky business to sort of drive them out of urban spaces.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MANLEY: What you see in a lot of cities is that you won't find many benches to sit down. Notice that next time you're in San Francisco or some other big city and, you know, you're out walking and you want to sit down. It's very hard to find a bench. And the reason for that is city planners are getting rid of benches to disperse the homeless.

CONAN: Now I understand, do you--I understand that sometimes you get up in the mornings and head to the park.

Mr. MANLEY: Oh, yeah. That's the other thing, is that--what's one of the main reasons that we give to charity? What's one of the main reasons that we respond to charitable appeals? And I think the real reason is that we always feel better about ourself when we do something for somebody else. Yeah, we can make the argument that we're helping somebody, but my experience is when I do something charitable, I always feel much better about myself. So when I'm not feeling good about myself, I get up a half hour early, go to one of the city parks where I know a group of homeless that congregate there, and I take them a carton of cigarettes and a bag of bagels. And it's interesting, they always go for the cigarettes first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANLEY: But I always come away--I always do that when I need--you know, `Will, you know, you're feeling down on yourself, you had to fire somebody, you had to do this, you had to do that, that you really didn't want to do. Why don't you go do something that makes you feel good?' So that's what I do.

CONAN: Well, Will, thanks for feeling all of us feel good today. Appreciate it.

WILL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Will Manley, city manager in Tempe, Arizona. He joined us by phone from his office.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an e-mail we got, anonymous, as you'll understand. `I was a former panhandler. I had the advantage of being female and somewhat attractive. My partner and I would make hundreds of dollars in one afternoon, more during holidays. It sure beat a job back then. I never give money now, only food or offers to fill up tanks because of my experience.'

Get another caller on the line. This is Nick. Nick calling from Auburn, California.

NICK (Caller): Hey, Neal. This is Nick. Listen to KXJZ. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

NICK: Doing good. I used to live in southeast DC, and what we would do is we'd work with our panhandlers. We had three of them that were well-known in the neighborhood. One of them slept underneath our stairs and he kind of provided security for our house. And the other two we would give a couple dollars here and there to wash our car or to hail us a cab, that kind of thing. So we never had--you know, it was great having them around.

CONAN: But you give them money to wash your car as opposed to the squeegee man who approaches your windshield with a rag?

NICK: Right. Well, I mean, when you got your local panhandlers, you get to have a relationship with them. And they're just nice to have in the neighborhood.

CONAN: All right, Nick. Thanks very much.

NICK: Yeah.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

NICK: Bye.

CONAN: Here's another e-mail, Brian in San Antonio. `I've been to Austin, Texas, and panhandling runs rampant through that city. Many times I'll drive by beggars that seem almost obviously faking homelessness, others who seem real, and I feel guilty because I have money and they don't. One time, though, that I gave money was during Christmastime. A disheveled lady was holding a sign that read only, "Have a Merry Christmas." I felt so warmed by her sign and her lack of outward begging that I gave her $10 and I hoped that she would have a merry Christmas, too.'

Let's get another call in. John. John calling from Tucson, Arizona.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, thank you, Neal. This is amazingly timely for us. I was having coffee with my daughter about 15 minutes ago, and as we stepped outside of the coffee shop, we were greeted by a panhandler who rode up on a bicycle. And he said, `If I can just tell you my story, it'll just take a minute.' And my daughter reached for her purse and I reached for my wallet, and we both said, `We don't have time.' We each gave him a dollar and we had to hurry on about our business. And I guess now with this conversation that I'm listening to, let alone the thoughts I had from the incident itself, I have far more questions than I do answers. Did I deprive the man of his dignity because he didn't get to tell his story or did we simply just save him the time and give him a couple of dollars? Did we have a relationship with him? Did we do the right thing? Should we have given to charity? I have far more questions than answers after the incident.

CONAN: So maybe you would've been better off listening to the story?

JOHN: Well, I was glad to tune it in. It was very timely. The man was very--it's very hot here in Tucson, and he was on a bicycle and in some distress. And I feel that we did the right thing, but everybody's questions still maintain. Should I have given $2 to an agency? I just don't know.

CONAN: John, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

JOHN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Here's another e-mail. `My son is a homeless person because of mental illness and drug addiction. He often panhandles and will openly admit he sometimes uses the money for drugs. However, sometimes he uses the money for food, a cup of coffee, a phone call home. Knowing that makes it hard to say no. I see my son in them all. However, I do not believe that giving him money is helpful. He's told of many people who have offered actual help--a meal, a place to stay, a place to clean up. I bless those people both as a mother and an individual. So if someone wants to help the homeless, since the government often does not, I believe, like some of your callers, you should give of yourself instead of giving your money.' That from Nara Lee(ph). And we thank her for that.

When we come back from a short break, the Army is running short of the new wave of bulletproof vests for soldiers in Iraq. We'll hear from the Pentagon on how it procures the gear that soldiers rely on to protect themselves in battle.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.