Letter: Do the Homeless Panhandle?

As Jack Neely portrays in his June 14, 2012, column ("You're Not Going to Believe This, But…"), on many public sidewalks in downtown Knoxville, one is apt to be panhandled. Many of us know that panhandling is not limited to just downtown. At any public gathering place or interstate system exit, we can be confronted with the rattling of a cup accompanied by the request for spare change or a cardboard sign hand scratched with a solicitous request for food, work or money. Among the requests is not only the presenting need but, far too often, the need is presented with a sense of immediate urgency.

Moved by either sympathy or disdain, our responses are filtered by our own assumptions and stereotypes of the panhandler and the homeless individual.

Though the panhandler and homeless person are standing at the same proverbial street corner of American poverty, figuratively, they are heading in opposite directions.

One is heading down a street that diminishes life through the abuse and exploitation of "relational" capital.

The other is stalled on the corner by the diminishment of "relational" capital that has been exhausted or withheld.

Though a homeless person may panhandle, not all homeless individuals panhandle. There are definitive differences between the two. The differences should inform not only our individual responses but also public policy for addressing issues of safety and homelessness.

Do the homeless panhandle?

According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing and contrary to a popular belief, "only a small percentage of homeless people panhandle and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless."

Both the panhandler and the homeless individual pair their requests with a presenting need. Based upon this superficial comparison though, the American public tends to "lump" them together that ultimately informs our assumptions and responses.

Yet, there is a difference between the two and it is a significant one.

The difference in the requests rests in the time between presenting the need and the opportunity to verify the need.

For the panhandler, the presenting need is paired with an immediate sense of urgency. The urgent-laden tactic is purposeful. That purpose is to either reduce or eliminate the verification all together because the "pitch" is nothing short of manipulation as it seeks to exploit the relationship. The posturing of the pitch is often exceeding polite or abrasive, direct or calculatingly subtle. It is not, however, transparent. The purpose of panhandling, given its propensity to lurk behind the shadows of transparency, is to exploit the relationship for the sole purpose of attempting to "check an unchecked appetite." Any encounter with another person is a means towards that end. Relationships are mere channels. If there is such a thing as "social capital" for a panhandler, it is to be expended at any rate and by any means. The creation and/or nurturing of mutual relationships are impaired and prohibited by the intentional disregard for the other as evidenced by the acts of manipulation and exploitation.

For those who are who are experiencing homelessness, however, their presenting needs (though urgent) will engage "relationally" with a provider that permits both time and trust in verifying the need.

The panhandler is a metaphor for a life disposition of antisocial behavior that thwarts the building and nurturing of community through mutual relationships.

On the other hand, the homeless person can become a metaphor for a life where relationships are fragmented momentarily, yet there is a desire and intentional eagerness for community through mutual relationships.

Jack Neely is right, "small-time philanthropists...could find better ways to do good for the world." For the most part, panhandlers are successful because the "small-time philanthropists" insure the success. All the while, people who are struggling to reclaim both their life and a place among the community are left without the resources to move from the metaphorical street corner of disenfranchisement.

It is time to confront poverty as a human construct and begin orchestrating community responses that empower personal responsibility along with a clarion call for systemic change from unaccountable benevolence to accountable permanent solutions that are effective strategies that confront homelessness. To do any thing less, to borrow Neely's analogy, makes all of us some what of a "chump."

Rev. Dr. Bruce W. Spangler, President

Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition