In my home town, certain up-and-coming homeless people sell a newspaper with city news, homeless news, columns, fiction, poetry, games, and editorials.  One can purchase it for a dollar on the street from a licensed vendor, who retains USD .70 of the price paid.  I buy every issue.  It’s a nice counterpoint to mainstream news: you should hear what they have to say about criminal justice and that notably talent-bereft hotel heiress whose name will likely never hit this blog.

My all-time favorite article is how to make a bed on the street: how many layers of cardboard, etc, in order to sleep as well and safely as possible.  But this month has another how-to article: How to deal with panhandlers:  written by panhandlers:

1. Acknowledge people, whether you are going to give money or not.
2. Give from the heart: don’t question the use of the gift.
3. Prefer to give Food over money? Hand out cereal bars or fruit instead.
4. Hand them a Street Sense (this is the newspaper) in order to educate them about local services.
5. Know the boundaries: it is illegal for a panhandler to approach you aggressively.

Well, this is a nice mix of what’s true and what isn’t.  As a person who frequently follows (1) and (2), I know that sometimes I do not acknowledge panhandlers if they look like they will be difficult–or for that matter, if I feel like I am going to be difficult.  Second, anyone who has handed over “spare change” only to have it dumped in the street as a less than worthwhile amount, one learns that good will is not everything.  You have to pick your recipients, too, and that’s sometimes difficult to judge.

To me, panhandling is a sales job with an undefined product–it sells intangibles.  Sometimes those intangibles are defined, as in “fund drives” for the denizens of a particular park in New York, yesterday.  I was asked for oney by a guy in a tie but poor dental health, with an undeterminable name badge clipped to the shirt.  I gave that guy two dollars: he was either sincere or had put some effort into the con.  Other intangibles: one purchases the sense that one has cared for another, or is connected to humankind in general, or even “what goes around comes around”, meaning that random acts of generosity will come back to one in greater goodwill from others.  In another sense, it acknowledges that we are all here partly on the goodwill and sufferance and efforts of others.

I don’t give much, actually.  And as for having it come back to me: twice my life has been saved by homeless men.  Both times, it was from a mugging, and once in an extremely tight spot.  So you can call me a soft touch, or you can imagine that in general I think it’s good to make nice with the neighbors.

For those outside the D.C. area, you can subscribe to the Street Sense paper (24 issues/year) for USD 40.00.  Street Sense, 1317 G. Street NW,  Washington, DC, 20005.  This is a job for those that sell the paper, and it has helped many of the vendors develop jobs and even careers– or obtain homes in the DC area.  The road up and out of dire poverty has, at least in this case, a reputable background.

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