The Best Approach to Panhandling

As usual, my topic involves terms that have curious origins. Panhandling could refer to beggars holding out pans into which kind folk might drop coins. (Today’s beggars often rattle a cup containing a few coins, to draw attention.) But the word Pan is also the Spanish word for Bread, which in turn is English slang for Money.

I’ve lived in my current neighborhood for many years, first as a homeowner. Then – after a 3 year hiatus – I returned as a renter in a highrise, to see where to live out the rest of my already long life. Numbers of beggers, homeless and other needy people seem on the rise country wide, and Chicago’s no exception. These people take many approaches to  getting what they want and need. I’m interested to see what the most successful panhandling styles might be, and also what’s the best approach to helping the panhandlers. I’ll start with the former.

Rico – a light-skinned black man – has been a fixture in front of the Old Town Walgreens for years. Rico is a common Mexican name; could he be trying to pass for a Latino? I can only speculate about such questions. He’s taken over that spot with a lawn chair, an American flag, and a cheerful greeting to all the neighborhood residents who know him. They ask what he might like, and bring him food, drinks,  paper towels, etc – from the Walgreens, Starbucks, or Mc Donalds on the corner. He never asks for anything directly. I’ve seen him buy coffee at Starbucks though, so somebody must give him cash. Periodically he doesn’t show up by bus at his normal hour – about 11 a.m. Recently he apologized since he couldn’t wait for me to bring what he’d asked for, because his wife needed him at home.

In front of McDonald’s, an always drunk white man has taken over a piece of sidewalk, smoking and talking to people who stop to chat. He’s almost invisible when he sleeps, covered with clothes and belongings. I’d guess he’s Irish by his coloring (no offense meant) – made ruddier by the alcohol. He eats food from McDonalds. I’ve never seen him get up and walk freely somewhere. Now and then he’s taken away – apparently for medical  attention. He’s absent right now.

A new addition to the neighborhood is a young white man (mid 20’s) who moves up and down on Wells St, in the block south of North Ave.  He wears a dirty loose shirt and pants, and no shoes – which is shocking. I don’t think he talks to anyone.

Another long timer is a black woman, dressed in bright colors and bling, who moves around. She stands alone, not by the busy  corners, and sings nice songs to herself. Once in a while she’ll go into Starbucks and hang out. She never  asks for anything. I learned a lesson when I wanted to give her some  money, but only had larger bills in my wallet. I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to ‘Wait a minute while I go find you some cash’. She pulled back and yelled ‘Don’t touch me; you’re not my father!’ A foolish error on my part.

Others are still regulars in the neighborhood as they were when I owned a house and lived in it. They walk around, stopping people politely – even knocking on doors – and saying something like ‘I just got out of prison’, or ‘I need enough money to get to the train’, etc. I would say ‘You told me that same story the past three days. Better remember who you talked to’.

There are many non-profit agencies devoted to helping the needy. The Salvation Army is an old one. Their workers used to come to the local Walgreen’s corner, especially at Christmas time, but for some reason Walgreens no longer allows them in their space. Another agency – Chicago metropolitan YWCA – has 500 homeless or unemployed agents selling their street paper – SteetWise.  It’s their work. They get most of the price of the paper. Keeping up with the times, the paper now allows buyers to scan a QR code on the front, and pay with Venmo! You’ll see that code on this cover page, in honor of Stan Lee – the publisher of Marvel Comics. The StreetWise idea has now spead to 100 other cities (e.g. London) and there is an International Network of Street Papers. Sad to say, I haven’t seen StreetWise in my neighborhood since moving back here. This confirms the editor’s claim that few people will take the time to understand that these (mostly black male) agents are working for a living. And for most of them, this has been their only crack at a respectable job and wage, despite Chicago weather and public disdain. However, just this year the price of Streetwise has been raised to $3.00, which may make passers by even less interested in buying it.

With begging, as with real estate, it’s ‘Location, Location, Location’. We’ve been talking about foot traffic. But car traffic presents opportunities too. For example, on-ramps and off-ramps often include encampments under the over-passes, where ‘residents’ can come and go, or stay every day and night, for months. Chicago policies have been getting more accepting recently, with so much attention to the lives of needy people. Black Lives Matter, and the Pandemic have increased that leniency.

As a child I was taught that helping people meant really helping them – i.e., doing what is good for them – not just doing what they asked for. So directing people to a shelter, or telling them The Salvation Army has work available, or bringing them food if they appear to need it, are examples of what might be genuinely helpful. I must admit when a  300+ lb man says ‘I’m hongry; kin ya hep me out?’ I tend to turn away. But then there are many overweight people who eat because of loneliness, pain, frustration or boredom. More and more panhandlers are on the streets, from emaciated to enormous size, of all colors, ages and races. Normally I make eye contact and smile at people I meet in passing, whatever their appearance. I don’t know anyone’s circumstances or true character.

Having English ancestry on Mother’s side (Starkey), I inherited the belief that everyone should work, and that being a begger or obviously destitute was a sign that the person wasn’t working hard enough. I’m afraid of being lazy and feel guilty if I’m not active. So far as I can tell, that was a holdover from Dickens’ times – “Have they no workhouses?”. Today Great Britain has very helpful programs to train and assist job seekers and the underserved – way ahead of  our country’s efforts. Here’s  a website from the UK,  and one from the US. Notice the title of the US program falls under ‘money’, and has little mention of other kinds of help.

What is the best and most effective approach to helping beggars? Jesus said, ‘The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me’ (Mt 26:11). The background for his statement is fascinating and complex, and subject to many interpretations. (By the way, my views of Scripture are based on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Here’s a brief video describing him.) A thoughtless person might take it to mean ‘forget the poor for now’ and think about me’, which makes no sense. Jesus’ whole life illustrated his concern for the poor and needy. He proves this by going to celebrate Passover with his disciples – a last chance to teach them – though he knew his death would come at the same time. He directed his followers to arrange for the event at the Bethany home of his friend Simon the Jarmaker (mistranslated as the Simon the Leper). Passing out the ritual cup of wine and the unleavened bread, he added that he would not drink or eat with them again until he did so in his Father’s Kingdom. At Simon’s house, Mary came and ‘annointed’ Jesus. She poured precious ointment on him, which the others present criticized for being wasteful (especially Judas Iscariot, whom some accounts descibe as traitor who would do anything for money, which he shortly proved).

There’s a lot of talk in the Bible about ‘the poor’. The sermon on the Mount famously says ‘Blessed are the Poor’. That is the version in Luke (Luke 6:20). But Matthew says a great deal more: ‘Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matt 5:3). There’s a huge difference between these two texts. I like this analysis of poverty in an article from Theology of Work Org. I disagree with their reading of ‘Thy kingdom come’ as saying his kingdom will be on earth too. His Kingdom is always heavenly. But that’s not a major point.

At the end of his worldly life, the Lord Jesus gave a ‘new commandment’ to his followers. They were to ‘love one another as he had loved them’. This is especially clear in the gospel of John, where Jesus promised them they would live with him in his Father’s house, and Kingdom, but only in so far as they believed his Word, and lived a life of genuine love for their neighbor. There are plenty of hypocritical displays of love with selfish motives. We must all try hard to fight against our self-interest, which is our natural inheritance. We need to make the effort to open our hearts to Him and seek his help. Ultimately, it’s the Lord who is working for every human in the world, every minute, to eternity, though none of us is directly aware of his Providence. All this is shown clearly in John, Chapter 13.