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Panhandle Tales

The Jamaican reincarnation of Barry Manilow called me over and said "White boy, you got heart. Get yourself a nice hotel room for the weekend."

I’ve been involved in an interesting discussion with some folks, both local and online, in cities across the U.S., in the U.K., and elsewhere on the pros and cons of giving money to homeless people if they ask you for help. The responses have run from the profane to the profound.

A lot of “hell nos” and “fuck ’ems” with no explanation or rationale. Quite a few “no, but . . . ” with answers like, “I don’t have/give cash, but I’ll buy you a meal/coffee/tea/soda” or “Tell me what I can get for you and we’ll go to the store,” etc.

Some people offer to take the homeless person to a shelter or agency, and others carry premade care packages with items like socks, gloves, a rain poncho; personal hygiene products like toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap, deodorant, wet wipes, feminine products, etc.; and nonperishable, single-serve food items like granola bars, water, juice, shelf-stable milk, sport drinks, raisins, nuts, candy, cookies, crackers, cans or pouches of tuna or chicken, noodle soup cups, cans of stew, pasta, or similar dishes that can be eaten without heating.

Still others will give supermarket or big-box gift cards (usually between $5 and $20) in the well-intentioned but quite mistaken belief that they cannot be turned into cash—maybe not at face value, but everything has its price.

And there are those who do believe in giving cash, with as many reasons and attitudes as there are types of homeless panhandlers. Some give to any and all, usually coins or a buck. Others give to one person a day, regardless of who they are, first come, first served. There are folks who have a special person they see on a daily basis, maybe on the commute or as they enter or leave their office. They may donate change from buying lunch (sometimes with leftovers), or they may give that person a weekly gift on payday or Friday evening. Some people give, or give more, on Sundays, on the way to or from church, or nearing/on holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter. I’ve known people who have a cup or unused ashtray as a coin cache and give it to someone every time it is filled or whenever they decide to give.

When I was panhandling regularly, I experienced all of these and more. What I came to anticipate and enjoy—yes, enjoy is the right word—was the number of 90-second stoplight conversations I had after people began seeing me regularly, and making that first contact that broke the ice. I stood on the corner of the I-83 exit ramp at North and Mount Royal Avenues with a multicolored sign that read “Homeless—Please Help; Clean And Sober; Thank You and God Bless.” I would not approach a car unless called or signaled, and I tried to smile at or nod hello to everyone. While many looked away quickly or stared straight ahead (or pretended not to look while sneaking glances at my sign), others seemed shocked for a second, then returned the nod or smiled or said hello.

Frequently, 30 seconds later, they would call me over and hand me a dollar, and as I thanked them, they would initiate conversation. I became friendly with some folks as I told them my story, 30 seconds at a time over weeks and months. Some who did not give initially changed their minds over the course of a few trips, possibly because of my totally nonaggressive stance; my smile at anyone who met my eye, whether anyone gave me anything or not; the size, brightness, message, and effort invested in my sign; and my appearance and attitude and credo: “Homeless does NOT have to mean derelict.”

I heard a number of times, ”You are the most cheerful homeless person I’ve ever met,” and “You’re too clean to be homeless.”

Then there’s the one encounter—that almost got me killed for my response at first blink, but ended up being very lucrative with the driver of a $200,000-plus S65 AMG Mercedes Benz—filled with, I’m guessing, an O.G. drug dealer and his crew.

“You can’t be homeless, you too clean,” the driver said in an aggressive and seemingly confrontational manner that hit a nerve when I was already having a bad day. “Your socks so white, they whiter than mine.” I said, “So what that tell you ’bout yourself? You dirtier than a homeless guy!” It took a second to hit him, and then he started to get out of the car, reaching into his pants. I thought I was dead, when the rear window rolled down and out came a cloud of damn-fine-smelling weed smoke, sounds of men and women laughing, and a deep basso profundo voice with a Caribbean lilt saying, “Sit yo ass down, fool. You dissed him and he dissed you back. You both even.”

The guy gave me a sheepish grin and said “we cool” as he slipped back into the car. The window started to close then came down again, with another exhale that probably gave half of MICA a contact high, and the Jamaican reincarnation of Barry Manilow called me over and said, “White boy, you got heart. Get yourself a nice hotel room for the weekend and give yourself a treat,” and handed me eight fragrant $50 dollar bills! Ka-ching! It got me a fairly nice chain motel room, “Disney On Ice” tickets for me and my daughter, my monthly bus pass, meds, and food for a month.

Many people want to control money they choose to donate to the homeless. My father taught me when I was young that, if you choose to give someone cash, you surrender the power to control their use of it. If you want a guarantee that the money won’t be spent on drugs or alcohol, give to an established charity that you have researched and approve of. Or step out of your car or that cocoon that isolates most people from more than superficial contact with the homeless and get to know one or a few of us and then decide. Believe it or not, many of us are just like you. We have the same fears and desires, hopes and dreams. We may share an interest in literature, food, movies, or politics.

You’ll never know until you take that first step of simply acknowledging our shared humanity.

Dave blogs about life on the street at

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