February 20, 2017
This snapshot of a Seattle panhandler was sent to me by a reader who inferred that because the woman was sitting in a comfortable chair sipping a pricey coffee, with a dog and a cushion, she’s not genuinely needy but merely lazy. In fact, we don’t know what this woman’s life is like. If we give her a buck, she might do something good with it, or she might do something bad with it. The money might help tide her over till her housing application comes through. Or it might go toward her next fix.
Everyone knows that when you give money to a panhandler, it’s a gamble . . . So why? Why do some people support panhandlers when there are so many good charities out there that help homeless people in verifiable ways? And why, for that matter, do people support tent camps, when there are perfectly good housing programs, or drug-taking sites when there are drug treatment programs that work? The answer is the same in all these cases: Because it feels good. And it’s easy. Let’s face it: Helping people on the street can be hard work. And frustrating, too, since there’s no guaranteed happy ending. Some folks just don’t make it no matter how many friends and social workers they’ve got in their corner. So we see that even if you give your time and money to the trusted charity or program you’re still taking a gamble, just like you are with the panhandler. But the panhandler has an emotional advantage over the charity, because with him, you can see the face of an individual you’re ostensibly helping, and when you hand him a buck, he gives you a smile and a thank you, which pretty much seals the deal in your mind. You may not have helped him get ahead in life. In fact, maybe all you’re doing is encouraging his dependency. And on some level, you know that. But in the meantime, at least you’ve brightened his day.
And all it cost you was a lousy buck.
–By David Preston