Photo: Belish/Shutterstock

Panhandlers: Where Does Your Spare Change Go?

by Kate Sedgwick Sep 2, 2010
Why are we so obsessed with how homeless people spend the money we give them?

I RECENTLY READ How Panhandlers Use Free Credit Cards in The Star, and while I imagine that the writer, Jim Rankin, has his heart in the right place, I can’t help but bristle at the idea that the question is being asked and is so important to those that might drop a few quarters into the palm of a citizen sitting on the sidewalk, begging for change.

Aside from the fact that the article gave spare changers pre-paid credit cards (which we could assume are limited in their drug buying capabilities, but only in a roundabout way), the question of where your money goes when you give it to an obviously needy person is kind of sickening.

I’m not attacking Rankin.  This is a question people are obviously keen to know the answer to.  It’s a sentiment you hear often.  “I would give money to bums, but they’d probably spend it on drugs or alcohol.”

In the context of the article, the people given the credit cards knew their purchases would be reviewed.  We can assume their purchases were edited accordingly. One woman even felt compelled to apologize for having spent the money on cigarettes.  The fact that she felt this way and that Rankin also seemed to think it was something that implied an excuse was necessary shows the writer is on board with the perception that if we give, we should also be cognizant of what the money we give is spent on.


About a year ago, I attended a cultural awareness seminar at the South American Explorers Club.  I found the course enjoyable, but at one point, the topic of how people might spend the money they earned panhandling came up.

One clean scrubbed, bright eyed, overprivileged twenty-something brought up how she didn’t like giving money to homeless people because “they could spend it on anything.”  In the audio version of this story, this is where you here the needle scratch right across the record.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard this line of logic.  But it was the first time I let loose a cascade of words in incredulous sequence.

“Why is it your business how they might spend the money you give them?”

“Because they could spend it on drugs.”

“Well, if they do, they need those drugs more than you need your two pesos.  Don’t they?”

I’m not sure how this conversation ended.  I probably scared the poor girl and half the room with my outraged argument.  But in the stark light of have and have not conspicuous in every large city the world over, what purpose does this question serve?

This is what I would ask her if I had the chance to do it all over again.

Where does most of the money you spend on a cup of coffee at the Starbucks go?

Advertising, construction, polluting paper cups.  Even a company that supports fair trade is doing its share of damage.

When you shop at Ambercrombie and Fitch, where do you suppose that money goes?

Sweat shop labor, ads, promoting an impossible beauty standard, and blasting shoppers ears with payola.

The real answer is that you don’t know and you don’t really care.  You spend the money because you perceive that money going towards a good or service that you want and the real endpoint of that money is invisible to you.

But that doesn’t even come close to making the point.

What do you suppose panhandling costs the person doing it?  It’s a job.  Maybe it’s not a job with any discernible purpose, but is it less harmful than working at McDonalds and contributing to deforestation, the pollution of the water supply and chipping away at the collective health of a nation?  I would argue that it is.

Panhandling is demeaning job in the grand scheme of things.  If the person panhandling is living on the street, that means he is in search every day for a safe place to sleep, something to eat, dry clothes and a shower.  If a person is homeless, that person has likely spent a less than restless night sleeping on a surface you wouldn’t set your purse down on.

He feels like shit, is probably in pain and less than ideal health and his diet is a mish-mash of whatever he can get his hands on. Finding a place to take a dump is a problem. Can you imagine what that’s like on a day to day basis?

Then he gets to spend all day on another hard surface asking stone faced strangers who would prefer not to acknowledge him for spare change.

Who are you to place a value judgement on what he buys?  If someone is subjected to all these hardships and chooses to buy alcohol or speed, he obviously needs the speed more than he needs your judgement.  And every dollar you give to a drug addict is a dollar that person is not going to steal from your lilly white ass while you walk by him with your head up it.

If you give money to a panhandler, you can know one thing for certain.  The person you’re giving your money to is the one who’s going to use it.  For nourishment, a clean pair of socks, or to shoot up, your charity is going directly to the source.

What other form of charity is as pure as that?  There’s no processing fee, no one in a rented office getting their not-for-profit-ass paid, no transportation cost, and most importantly, there is no one making decisions about the most responsible way to spend the money on his behalf.  You are giving a little money that you won’t miss to someone who needs it.  That’s it.

Vetting charity is for organizations.   Spare change is for busses, parking meters, tip jars and people on the street who need it.

That’s what I would say to her if I had the chance to do it over again.

Community Connection

Find out where travelers are most hassled in World’s Most Annoying Cities and the comments field where those with change to give compete for the most annoying beggars in the US and throw your two cents in.

Or if you’re more interested in participating in freeganomics, pop in at BNT where you can learn to live off the good stuff that finds its way to the trash in Dumpster Diving: The Easiest Way to Find Food.

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