By Emma Woolley, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
This question came from Barbara V. via our latest website survey: “What is the best and most respectful way to handle someone who is asking for spare change? I am often approached by someone asking for spare change while I sit at a red light and I find it awkward to say “No.” I want to help people in need, and wondered if you have any advice on this.”
This is a common question and one Tanya has answered before (Steve too!) but I thought it was worth discussing again. As she says, ultimately the decision is yours. Do you have the change spare and if so, do you want to give it away? Personally, I only give when I have change in a small bag or pocket because like Tanya, I don’t like taking my wallet out on the street.
Some people think they can dictate what a person then spends the given change on. In our neoliberal capitalist society, we tend to equate worth with wealth – anyone performing some kind of service is deserving of money, while those who ask or “beg” are not and should feel lucky to get anything at all/follow instructions. (In other words, people tend to ask questions like: “Why should I give away my hard earned money while they do nothing?” instead of: “Wait, why does this person need help?”) Furthermore, people tend to assume panhandlers are swindlers or that they’ll spend money on alcohol or drugs, so they try to tell people they can only spend change on food or transportation.
This is, in my opinion, pointless. Giving with strings attached comes with a hefty amount of judgment, which people who are panhandling get enough of already. We simply cannot control what happens once that change leaves our pockets, and if we’re truly giving, we have to be at peace with that.
Regardless of what you decide, Tanya suggests that you:
…have the decency to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them. That sounds simple, but the fact is, many people who are panhandling are routinely ignored, sworn at, harassed, robbed and assaulted. Having someone look them in the eye and recognize them as a person can be very affirming.
If you decide to not give someone money, simply make eye contact and say something like:
- “I’m sorry, but I can’t”
- “No, I don’t/can’t”
- “I don’t have change, sorry.”
Those are just some options. Pick one you’re most comfortable with leave it at that. Alternatively, if you want to help in another direct way without giving money, you can simply ask the person if you can get them something else, like food or tokens, but asking is key. For example, sometimes people are given food that they are allergic to or can’t eat – so never assume that “anything goes.”
In my experience when I do not give change, most people simply say something like: “Ok thanks, have a nice day.” The whole interaction is often only a few seconds long, yet panhandling, busking and squeegeeing have become a source of outrage and discomfort. What is it about panhandling that makes us so uncomfortable?
Things to keep in mind about panhandling
Our society assumes all kinds of ideas about people experiencing homelessness – that they’re worthless, undeserving, unproductive, all substance abusers (and even if they are, do they not also deserve to live decently?), etc. – and these ideas lead to extremely negative reactions to activities which, in many ways, make homelessness and poverty unavoidable and very visible. This is uncomfortable on its own, never mind in combination with the multitude of negative stereotypes about people experiencing poverty and homelessness.
It is highly criminalized
Generally, we housed and privileged folks do not like being faced with these hardships and because we feel entitled to what we have, we tend to blame people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness for their troubles. This leads to scapegoating and creating laws that prohibit panhandling in the name of “street safety” despite the fact that the vast majority of people who panhandle are not violent. These are often referred to as the criminalization of homelessness and poverty.
Just recently, “aggressive panhandling” – which is illegal in Toronto under the Safe Streets Act (SSA) – was covered on 680 News and comes up frequently here and elsewhere as a concern for tourism and local businesses. Legislation like the SSA does little to improve street safety and it actually often makes situations worse for people who are already in precarious financial situations by giving them unnecessary fines. This criminalization does not help end homelessness; rather, it aims to make it less visible.
It isn’t lucrative
Despite what some media stories would have us believe, panhandling is rarely a get-rich scheme or a first choice. In Calgary, people usually choose to pick bottles well before panhandling. Usually, people who panhandle face significant barriers to traditional employment, like: inadequate education, need for immediate money, poor physical and mental health, and/or disabilities. (Read our backgrounder on why street youth panhandle for more information about barriers.) And despite popular belief, few people experiencing homelessness receive government benefits. If someone is panhandling, chances are they are doing it as a last resort.
A 2007 study in Winnipeg found that most people (40%) who panhandled made only an average of $30 to $40 a day, with only 22% making over $50 a day. For over half of the participants, they indicated they either wouldn’t know what to do for income if panhandling wasn’t an option or that they would go hungry. Another study based in Toronto with youth experiencing homelessness found that many youth participate in panhandling and other illegal activities because it better meets their income needs than the low-paying, usually temporary jobs available to them.
It isn’t just for alcohol/drugs
Substance use among people experiencing poverty and homelessness is a polarizing topic, especially when we factor in charitable acts like giving money. As I wrote above, I don’t think we should judge what people spend their money on – that said, according to a 2002 Toronto study, most people who panhandle say that they spend the vast majority of their earnings on food.
So what else can I do?
I completely understand why someone might not want to give change, so here are some other ideas on how you can help people in need:
- Donate money or resources to a local organization that helps people experiencing homelessness. Call ahead to see where the greatest need is.
- Volunteer your time with organizations working to alleviate poverty and homelessness in your community.
- Become an advocate. Demand that Canada move towards a preventative strategy on homelessness, and support ideas like a mandatory minimum income.
There are also several suggestions in some of my past posts:
- How can I help people experiencing homelessness during winter?
- How can I raise awareness about hidden homelessness?
This post is part of our Friday “Ask the Hub” blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at email@example.com and we will provide a research-based answer.
Emma Woolley is an undergraduate student in York University’s Social Work program, with a background in publishing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing and homelessness, progressive approaches and care in mental health, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is a widely published freelance writer, with a large portion of her work focusing on gender issues within digital culture and technology.