Zucker: Not panhandling by choice

As one of the directors of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, I probably pay more attention than most when the issue of homelessness comes up in the News. So I’ve noticed the amount of coverage Saybrook sophomore Jerry Choinski has received for starting the Facebook group “Yale Undergrads against the (fake) New Haven homeless.”

The most recent coverage was the scene cover, “Hustling or Homeless” (Feb. 19), a feature on several members of the homeless community in downtown New Haven. The article opened with the Facebook group, and went on to ask the same question that Choinski claimed to answer: Are homeless people hustling you? The scene cover did, in all fairness, present some very compelling stories from the guests at YHHAP’s drop-in center, Unity House, and seemed to conclude (unlike Choinski and his Facebook group) that they probably aren’t. Still, it took over a thousand words and several moving stories for the article to get to that point.

So I’d like to address a slightly different question — why do people (and Yale students in particular), by default, assume that panhandlers are hustling them?

Panhandling is not — contrary, perhaps, to popular belief — a common or easy thing to do. There are over 700 homeless in New Haven; how many have you ever seen panhandling on Broadway? Very few — and the reason is that panhandling is extremely demeaning. For better or worse, no one in our society likes to beg for giveaways; people don’t want the world to view them as failures. Think about it — could you stand on the streets of your hometown and ask passers-by for money? Keep in mind, of course, that people like the students in the Facebook group will be judging you while you panhandle, assuming you’re lazy, and gossiping about how you decided to invest some of the little money you had in a cell phone, so that you could communicate with family, and maybe apply for jobs.

Chances are you would be somewhat uncomfortable and you might try to think of more proactive things to do. You might try to get a job. But maybe you’ve noticed from your own job and internship applications that even having a Yale education does not guarantee you employment these days. According to the Department of Labor, there are currently six applicants for every available job in the U.S. — and that figure is even higher for general unskilled labor positions. Throw in perhaps a criminal record, and your chances of employment are pretty slim. I’m a volunteer at No Closed Doors, a student-run organization where three hours a day, five days a week, we help low-income people apply for jobs. Over the course of this entire school year, very few have been successful.

Might you apply for government benefits? I certainly wish people accepted this solution, but the same stigma that is attached to panhandlers is also attached to “welfare queens,” thanks to the Reagan Revolution. For many people I’ve spoken to, going to a shelter or receiving benefits from the Department of Social Services is even more demeaning than panhandling. Besides, social programs provide far too little to stay afloat, especially when Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell is cutting benefits left and right.

As privileged students at Yale University, we often assume that there are hundreds more options. After all, most of us could probably find plenty of family members and friends willing to support us before we started panhandling. But it’s very hard to try other options when you don’t have many in the first place, and you’ve already been through all of them once. Essentially, panhandling is a last resort. If someone is doing it, it is because they have no other options.

Now, does this mean that every penny you give to a panhandler is used to buy the healthiest, most cost-effective food they can find? Of course not. Could panhandlers even spend your money on drugs? Of course. People often turn to substances when they have nothing left in their life to support them.

But even if a drug addict asks you for a dollar to fuel his addiction — I find it hard to understand how he is hustling you. Hustling implies intentionality, and a “gotcha” moment, where that person is suddenly better than you. As far as I can tell, at the end of the day, you’re a dollar poorer (you can deal with that) and he still has nowhere to turn and few ways to achieve a better life.

There, if that’s your idea of a hustler, by all means, join that Facebook group, and badmouth the panhandlers you see every day. If not, I’m not asking you to give money every time you’re asked. But I think you should promise yourself never to judge a homeless person.

Gabriel Zucker is a sophomore in Pierson College and a co-director of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness

Action Project.

Comments

  • 20Y12

    Are you actually trying to justify their actions because panhandling is demeaning and difficult work to do? That’s the poorest argument I’ve seen so far.

    These ‘hustlers’ or ‘fake homeless’ are lazy and would rather panhandle than search for other options. I don’t buy the fact that panhandling is an absolute last resort, especially for the ones who do it for years. I fully support that Facebook group and I am a proud member.

  • anonymous

    excellent article, gabe. thanks for saying it. that facebook group is awful and insensitive.

  • no sense

    This article’s one meaningful point, that people should not judge the homeless with a cruel heart, is lost amid all the other nonsense here. If someone asks you for money and buys drugs, clearly that money could have been put to better use. The author makes a very unconvincing argument for panhandling: it’s intrusive and far more demeaning than government assistance. I would encourage everyone who is moved by the plight of New Haven’s homeless to donate money to homeless shelters, volunteer time at homeless shelters, or (best of all) donate money to organizations that help educate the poorest members of society or help them obtain jobs. A dollar given to a panhandler is likely to be spent on drugs or alcohol, whereas a dollar given to an effective charity is used more efficiently and ultimately benefits the homeless far more. If all the money given to panhandlers were instead given to good charities, I’d say that the homeless would on average be far better off.

  • @ 20Y12

    Until you’ve been in extreme poverty, in the middle of Connecticut winter, with overcrowded shelters and soup kitchens; after you have tried to apply for jobs for months and perhaps years unsuccessfully – through no fault of your own current “laziness” but perhaps because something in your past is holding you back (lack of education, which costs money to get as an adult, or a criminal record); until you have asked everyone you know for help and you would rather ask strangers than hurt your pride again; until you have gone through Connecticut’s absurd systems to apply for food stamps, Medicaid, or subsidized housing, and know that even when you are proactive moving through these systems could take years…

    Until you’ve done all of this, you should quit that facebook group.

  • Yale ’10

    While the group is admittedly somewhat insensitive and perhaps not sufficiently nuanced, I think you are missing the point.

    The group is NOT an attack on the legitimate down on their luck homeless or those who are homeless by virtue of some mental illness or other incapacity that makes them incapable of holding down steady employment. Rather, the group is an attack on individuals such as the Flower Lady (who is not even actually homeless). The Flower Lady is DEPLORABLE insofar as she has made an EIGHTEEN YEAR career of harassing passerby for money. That is the (type of) person that the group is targeting and I invite you or anyone else for that matter to attempt to defend her behavior…

    After living in New Haven these past years, I’m extremely thankful to Giuliani for his efforts to clean up the streets of New York City.

  • @ By 20Y12

    So what are they supposed to do, if you’re brilliant? When jobs don’t exist, even for people with excellent qulaifications), do you just expect people to starve? Or maybe you support increasing the financial safety net at the local, state, and federal level, and improving mental health services and providing free, in-patient substance-abuse treatment? I’m actually quite curious what you think …

  • KH

    hey gabe, thanks for writing this excellent piece. incredibly troubled by the people who STILL came out of the woodwork to defend their facebook group–a truly amazing combination of childish pique and unselfconscious exercise of privilege.

  • Yale 08

    If you are healthy enough to stand at a street corner for 10 hours a day…

    If you are socially/intellectually skilled enough to approach total strangers for money…

    If you can avoid crime/drugs/alcohol…

    You can get a job in America.

    If you are deficient in one of the above categories, there are thousands of churches, shelters, centers, and charities to help you overcome your problems.

    Standing at the corner selling flowers or begging change does NOTHING.

    Real charity would stand against that kind of waste.

  • Yale ’10

    Seriously Gabe, I applaud your work and sympathize with the plight of the homeless. I agree that shelters and food banks are good and that the bureaucracy of getting aid could be made easier. That said Yale 08 is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT right – giving to panhandlers is not the answer.

    If you stopped giving money to that fat waste of space Flower Lady that stands on the corner harassing passerby then she would be forced to actually get a job and do something protective or seek real help from one of the many shelters and organizations available to her.

    Frankly, her license should be revoked and she should be tossed in jail. She asks you when you pass by if you would like to buy a flower and then when you say “no” she asks if you will give her change – that is no peddling, but rather panhandling!!!

  • lcd

    this debate is not getting to the real point: the way that i am constantly assaulted for money [that i don’t have to give away]

  • change

    the real problem is change.

    no change = no bums.

    anyone seen that south park?

    it costs more to make pennies than they’re worth anyhow.

  • @ @2012

    Until you’ve done all of this, you should quit that facebook group.

    Your argument against that guy rests on the premise that you can’t talk about poverty until you’ve tried it. This fails for two reasons.

    First, his argument is not that crushing poverty in the cold doesn’t suck. It’s that the people we see asking us for money aren’t the down-on-their-luck folks you romanticize, but in fact drive in to their panhandling spots every day, in the cars they own, from the homes they own. And, yes, this is hustling. New Haven has plenty of impoverished citizens that we should worry about before the York St. Swindlers.

    Second, I will wager whatever you want me to, that you yourself have never experienced what you described. And to defend poverty without having lived it is at least as silly as to attack it.

  • Gabriel Zucker

    I don’t usually like to respond to things in posts, but they’re anonymous, so, here goes.

    Re: #1
    You don’t buy that panhandling is a last resort… I’m sorry you feel that way. Unfortunately, there’s not much I could do to convince you otherwise except encourage you to sit down and hear stories that will make you realize that you are wrong. If you don’t want to do that, then there’s not much I or anyone else can do for you.

    Re: #3
    Nowhere in this op-ed did I support panhandling, or say that a dollar given to a panhandler is the best way you can give a dollar to homeless people who need it. I spend a large portion of my time at Yale working at the kinds of organizations you’re talking about. I did say, though, that it is unfair to judge people who choose to panhandle, and I still don’t see anything in your post that suggests I should back away from that.

    Re: #5
    I’m unclear how you think you know so much about these people. How many have you had conversations with? How many do you think there are? (Note – you could also, if you’re going to claim you know these people, refer to Annette by her name.)

    Re: #8
    I really really wish you were right. Unfortunately, you’re not. It’s not that easy to get a job. If you want proof, contact me and I can introduce you to people.

    Re: #9
    I really really am not saying that giving to panhandlers is the answer. At the same time, I wonder on what grounds you want to throw Annette in jail. Please explain…

  • Gabriel Zucker

    Also, re: #12
    Please send me the evidence you have. I’d be very interested to see it.

  • Yale 11

    On homeless man, near Mory’s, told me he actually gets so much government support/disability that he can live comfortably. Panhandling gives him extra spending money.

    “Why not get a job?” I asked.

    He said he would lose most of his government checks if he hit an income threshold at a job.

    Lazy scammer.

  • #3

    Gabriel, by stating that panhandling is a last resort, you implicitly support it as an institution when the reality is that help is available at shelters, through non-profits, or from the government. Your comment about panhandlers buying drugs with money is also beyond vague.

  • @ Gabe

    #5 and #9

    I have spoken to Annette. I have also read the numerous articles in the YDN referencing her (not all are recent – check the archives). She has a home and a cell phone and has been PANHANDLING for EIGHTEEN YEARS. Since you apparently know so much about her, please tell me why what she does is defensible or explain how she fits the mold of the type of homeless person you discuss? THAT is the type of FAKE homeless person the group opposes.

    As for the charges on which she could be thrown in jail – public nuisance, blocking a public walkway etc. (not sure if New Haven has an anti-panhandling statute, thought it should if it doesn’t…)

  • @15 and others

    “he actually gets so much government support/disability that he can live comfortably”

    I am disinclined to believe that his definition of comfortably is one that anyone reading this article would choose for their own life. The fact that he does not “choose” otherwise would imply to me that he does not have a choice, at least in his own mind. Yes, perhaps after submitting numerous applications he could eventually land himself that minimum wage job (which he is competing for with quite a few other people who may have better records than himself). However, there is a fine line in income that determines who gets the much needed check and who doesn’t, and his own measured increase may not cover that loss. Whether it is wrong to be financially dependent on society or not, is a less pressing question to him than making ends meet. I do agree that there are other choices people could make besides panhandling. However, before we call them lazy or propose putting them in jail (which, irrelevantly, would be a greater burden on society), let’s address the flaws in our society which cultivate the psychology of the panhandlers – not the least of which is their detachment from the passersby who degrade them. Then again, I’m not that guy you passed so please do not accuse me of pretending to understand all of the complexities of another person’s life.

  • Is this article for real?

    “For better or worse, no one in our society likes to beg for giveaways; people don’t want the world to view them as failures. Think about it — could you stand on the streets of your hometown and ask passers-by for money?”

    Leave it to an ultra-liberal Yalie to think everyone approaches life with the same set of values he has. We successful Yalies would find it demeaning, so these pandhandlers must too! Sigh. Have you ever spoken to one? You think they give a crap what you think of them? Obviously they care more about scamming off hard-working people for money. Shame does NOT trump free money for these people. If they really felt ashamed, THEY WOULDN’T DO IT. THEY’D GET A JOB. Contrary to Gabe and his insular liberal beliefs, they DO have a choice. Their choice is not working.

  • BR ’13

    Can we please stop using “homeless people” as pawns in our intellectual debates about “society” and “values”? Go out and meet some of them, talk to them. You might learn something.

  • GK Chesterton

    @ Gabriel:

    “I think the oddest thing about the advanced people is that, while they are always talking about things as problems, they have hardly any notion of what a real problem is.”

  • anonymous

    I would have to say that the greatest point of this is not to judge those on the streets. I am sure that some of those people never saw themselves being in their current situation.

    However, I sure as hell will judge someone who asks me for spare change while talking on a cell phone or smoking cigarettes (which cost more than a gourmet heaven sandwich per pack).

  • anti-capitalist

    Poverty, including dire poverty leading to homelessness, are a requirement of our system, not a condition that lazy stupid people find themselves in, as is assumed by many in this society, including many posters here.

    If you have taken a macroeconomics course, you would learn that unemployment less than about 5% is unhealthy for our economic system. The rationale is that full employment requires products to be very expensive, since employers have to pay, in the aggregate, a lot in wages. That is full employment leads to inflation, and is to be avoided. This works out to the requirement that about 15% of American have to, by necessity of the system, be totally unemployed. And of course if everyone who works makes 200K, the same inflation arises, so a lot of people like 20-40% need to be as poor as dirt, if the system is to work. This is what you would know if you learn about economics from books, rather than from facebook.

  • Yale 08

    Gabriel,

    Your faux concern only hides your actual disgust with the poor.

  • FailBoat

    Oh look, here’s a study saying panhandlers earn between $30-$40/hr and are usually not homeless.

    http://www.spokesman.com/blogs/hbo/2008/oct/01/study-panhandlers-earn-up-to-40-per-hour/

    Go keep on helping the real homeless, Gabe. Stop being preoccupied with defending the rights of the drug addicts on the street corner.

  • ROFLCOPTER

    Two years ago, I offered to buy a panhandler (who said he was $2 short of “getting a sandwich”) a sandwich at Au Bon Pain. He said he hadn’t eaten in a day.

    But he turned me down, and asked for the money instead because he wanted to get food from a food cart up by SOM.

    I told him I’d walk with him up there. We started walking and then he made an excuse to leave and go back to his street corner. I saw him there an hour later, asking a passerby to give him a dollar so he could feed himself.

    Since then, I’ve had little sympathy for panhandlers.

  • Veritas ’08

    @#23,

    You have injested too much garbage economics from clueless profs.

    Growth does not cause inflation. Fundamental grow is balanced on both sides of the exchange.

    Poverty is caused on a macro level by excluding people from circles of productivity: trade systems, rule of law, natural resources, education/labor skills, a mature culture, access to capital.

    When individuals are excluded (by corrupt governments) or choose to exclude themselves (by doing drugs/committing crime), the obvious result is poverty.

    Look at Africa:

    Africa is blessed with an abundance of labor, every natural resource, access to every trade route, ocean and continent, a great climate, beautiful scenery, etc.

    But corrupt governments and an immature culture (pre-Christian in most areas) prevent Africans from prospering.

  • Yale 08

    Veritas, you read my mind!

    American Success for Dummies:

    1- Graduate from high school
    2- Don’t do drugs, get drunk, commit crimes
    3- Get a job, ANY job, and work HARD.
    4- Save as much of your paycheck as possible
    5- Get MARRIED
    6- Go to Church on Sunday

    You will prosper relative to 99% of the world’s population.

    God Bless America.

  • John Bethke

    Up until 11 months ago, I was homeless. I lived in tent on the side of I-91. I are at soup kitchens, collected cans and bottles, and did odd jobs whenever I could find them.

    I’ve had my problems;Drugs, alcohol, bad relationships, criminal convictions – you name it and I’ve probably done it!

    With ONE exception!!!

    I have NEVER panhandled!!!!

    I would rather go without food than beg on a street corner, but then again, the average person trying to get in your pocket doesn’t want a meal!
    They could go to the Soup Kitchen and eat for free! THEY WANT TO SMOKE CRACK!!

    Wake up and smell the coffee!! Yes, 99.9% of the time you are being hustled by panhandlers!!!

    John Bethke

  • re #28

    I don’t think you know what white privilege is, but if you did, you might not be such a moron. Jesus.

    Also, lots of rich people in this comment thread whining about poor people.

  • Yale 08

    #30

    Nice comment, racist.

  • Gabriel Zucker

    Re: #16
    I was not making a normative statement in saying that homelessness was a last resort. I was just stating what I see as a fact. Stating facts is not implicitly endorsing anything. War is a last resort – I think war is terrible. Staying up all night to finish papers is a last resort… I think you get the idea.

    Re: #19
    I’m sorry if you don’t like the fact that I’m appealing to some level of common humanity in trying to determine what it might be like to panhandle. It seems to me you’re suggesting that panhandlers are some kind of foreign species that react to things differently then we do. Of course not everyone shares the same values (for example, you and I certainly don’t seem to). But we are all humans, and we can try to imagine being in someone else’s shoes. Or are you going to deny that too? At any rate, I’m unclear how the fact that I believe there is some kind of commonality between human beings makes me “ultra-liberal.” Does conservatism believe that all people are different and should be treated differently?

    Also, I have spoken with homeless people in my life. Have you?

  • stop avoiding

    Gabriel –
    Could you please respond to commenter number 29?
    Thank you,