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ANDERSON: What is panhandling and who does it

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June 08, 2016 - 8:02 AM

OPINION


The etymology of the term "panhandling" could fuel an entire story on its own, since just about everyone has a different idea of where the term came from. It first appeared with its current meaning in an American dictionary in 1888, but some say it originated as a play on words that began with the broken men of the California gold rush in the 1840s, and still others claim it's a carryover term involving the mediaeval European begging bowl, itself with roots in early middle eastern civilization and still in use across Asia. It is, to put a fine point on it, begging.

Like so much else in this era of wide but not deep reading, where arguments are reduced to talking points and juxtaposed against each other in dichotomous certitude, the discussion of panhandling on city streets is polarized. To those on one side of the argument panhandling is a blight on the streets perpetuated by people too lazy to work and to the other it's a result of poverty in a cold uncaring world. In one of my jobs I've had to look fairly deeply into the phenomenon, and while I'm far from an expert, after talking to numerous experts on both sides I think it's fair to say it's both… and neither.

Panhandlers come from all sorts of backgrounds and panhandle for all sorts of reasons, but while it is impossible to recite each and every story, they can be grouped into rough categories, often overlapping. It's worth noting that no one fits tidily in these categories, and some people undoubtedly fall outside all of them altogether:

  1. Drug and alcohol addicts. As any expert will tell you, drug addicts have essentially one imperative in their lives, and that's the next fix. It overrides ambition, self-respect, medical issues that aren't related to addiction, and in some cases even basic animal needs like food and water. They will often panhandle until they get what they need for another fix, after which they are gone until the next time. In their present state they are simply unemployable and entirely disinterested in working anyway.
  2. People with mental issues. These folks have problems that range from extremely low IQ to psychosis, and may not even be aware that they have a problem. As a group they tend to be prone to self medication, which often adds addiction to their problems. They may or may not be employable, depending on their condition, but for whatever reason practise panhandling.
  3. Scammers. These folks are high functioning people who are clever enough to play on peoples' emotions, and for whatever reason don't feel any shame in doing so. Often the folks holding signs on medians are from this group… in my city there is, for example, one retired individual who lives in a well-to-do house in the country and is driven into the city by his wife so he can sit and beg on a street in the north end of the city for several hours a day. Often these people justify their behaviour philosophically as "freemen," unbeholden to society or the government. Their signs are often carefully designed, with the message taken from one of the numerous websites that teach people how to panhandle effectively.
  4. Hobos. I don't mean this term disparagingly, but rather as a throwback to the 1930s and the class of (mainly) men who simply chose a lifestyle of homeless transience. Their choice may have begun because of a loss of job in the Great Depression, but for some people that led to a conscious life choice of hermitage or rail riding.
  5. Young transients. These folks have been around in successive waves since the 1960s...kids or young adults who simply take a summer off to travel, cheaply, in search of fun and the pursuit of youth. I know, because I was one of them once, back in the early 1980s. Many support themselves as buskers, others by seasonal work, some by marginally-legal enterprise, and some by panhandling. I never panhandled, just for the record.

Noticeably absent is the mythical group who panhandles because of "poverty." While it is true that most (but not all) panhandlers are poor, poverty is rarely the central cause of their panhandling in this day and age. Welfare supports in Canada, although no doubt still with many holes in them, preclude the sort of existential poverty that existed in the India of the 1960s and 70s, for example, where literal starvation was a very real thing to so many. Poverty is often a symptom of the lifestyle that drives them to panhandle - an addict who panhandles for his/her next fix is obviously unlikely to be wealthy, for example - but it is rarely the central cause of their panhandling.

Very few people in 21st century Canada, whether among the working poor or the unemployed, are forced to panhandle in order to survive. Even during the Great Depression panhandling was an occupation scorned by a civil society with its roots in the proverbial protestant work ethic, and today "poverty" is used as a sort of ideological short hand rather than a description of reality. No doubt there are people out there who feel they have to panhandle because they don't have enough money, but it is a choice rather than an existential need.

Next Week: Panhandling... what's the harm?

— Scott Anderson is a freelance writer. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.


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