Panhandling: Sometimes the best gift is not giving…

by Phil York

Believe it or not, only 35 business days remain until Christmas Day. This headline would intimidate most, but not this seasoned last minute shopper. I consider it a countdown to when I will surely shine the brightest. For many of us holiday traditions offer community, love, hope and the promise of a New Year. Some of our neighbors, however, endure hardships each month of the year. The holiday season seems to highlight this fact as their struggles stand in sharp contrast to the bright lights and carols in the weeks ahead.

While some of our neighbors turn to family and friends, the faith community or the nonprofit sector of Waco for assistance, others may decide to ask the community directly for support. “Panhandling,” or the act of asking for money, food or goods publicly, is our blog topic today.

Stereotypes of Panhandling Unwrapped

Panhandling is often closely associated with homelessness, but it is important to note that all panhandlers are not necessarily homeless, and only a relatively small percentage of homeless people engage in panhandling. According to a report published in the Urban Affairs Review in 2003, less than 15% of the homeless people sampled reported having engaged in panhandling.

According to this same report, which compared homeless people who panhandled with those who did not, those who engage in panhandling tend to be those who lack personal relationships such as marriage or children. They tend to have been homeless more often and for longer periods of time, and they are more likely to have alcohol, drug or mental health problems. This combined set of factors may make it more difficult for this group of people to find legitimate employment, making it more likely that they will turn to panhandling as a means of survival.

Waco Ordinance

Sympathetic as a panhandler’s predicament may be to some, cities often work to discourage panhandling out of a concern that it may be bad for business. Like many cities, The City of Waco has a panhandling ordinance. In Waco, panhandling is not allowed on public streets, roadways or medians. In addition, people who are panhandling (soliciting) may not, for example:

  • Continue efforts to solicit from a person once that person has indicated they do not wish to be solicited from.
  • Misrepresent the purpose of the solicitation
  • Engage in conduct that creates a safety or traffic hazard.
  • Or, use children to solicit funds.

Ordinances against panhandling, however, do not completely solve the problem. For one thing, enforcing them comes at a cost. According to the report quoted above, “the average cost of detaining an individual in jail is roughly 25% higher than the daily cost of providing an individual with shelter, food, transportation and counseling services.” For another thing, they do little to address the root causes of the problems that lead to the panhandling.

What should we do when we are asked by a neighbor for money?

Decline out of love – According to a 2012 Trib article on panhandling in Waco, Teri Holtkamp, the City of Waco’s homelessness coordinator discourages giving money. “You never really know where the money is going,” she said. “You may be supporting drugs or prostitution. So, rarely are you really helping a person out.” “Don’t just give because you feel guilt,” she said. “If you want to make lasting change, you have to say, ‘I love you enough not to give you money, because I don’t know where it’s going.’” In a recent e-mail, Ms. Holtkamp reiterated those sentiments stating, “People deserve real change not spare change.”

Recognize the human dignity – What you can give is a smile, recognition of human presence, and perhaps directions to an agency or ministry that can help.

Give Wisely – If you would like to give something directly to a person asking you for help, a meal at a fast food restaurant, a bus pass or a snack from a convenience store are better choices than giving cash. (Note: Do not to serve food directly on the street without first contacting the City of Waco for the proper permits.)

Teri Holtkamp suggests that instead of giving handouts on the street, well-meaning people might consider giving their money to an agency. “When you give to the agency you know where your dollars are going,” she said. Also, as Jimmy Dorrell, founder and executive director of Mission Waco, stated in the 2012 Trib Article cited above, “… generally, when people become so desperate that they beg for food, they have other issues they need to address.” Two organizations in Waco that can help with those issues are The Salvation Army and Mission Waco. The Salvation Army serves hot meals 365 days a year at the Community Kitchen, located near downtown Waco at 300 Webster Ave. Meals are available to anyone who asks. Mission Waco’s social services, including access to the “My Brother’s Keeper” shelter, are available through the Meyer Center at 1226 Washington.

The Easiest Gift to Wrap

I had the honor to work at the National Coalition for the Homeless a few years ago. I assisted the Speakers Panel Program: an event that allowed high school students to hear from formerly homeless citizens of Washington, DC. When one of our speakers, Sarah, was asked, “What was the worst thing about being homeless? The Winter?” Sarah took a deep breath, wrestled with tears that eventually fell, and said, “The worst part about being homeless is the fact that people see right through you…ignore your existence…a smile and hello always shocked me in the rare times they were given and always changed the tone of my day.”

The holiday season is upon us. Gift shopping is on the agenda for most. If you are asked to give by a person on the street, remember Sarah’s soul-penetrating reminder of our shared human dignity and how the best gift can be something that we can all afford to give and to receive this holiday season.

Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to [email protected]. Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco? If so please email [email protected].

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