Most days a week, at some point, I take the A train. The station for it is literally underneath my building; In a pinch, it takes exactly one minute to get from my kitchen to the platform if I don’t trip over the cat on the way out, if I dash down the stairs and don’t wait for the elevator.
You get to know all the characters who panhandle there; where they get on and off, and what their tactic is.
One guy walks barefoot with disgusting feet and asks for money for shoes.
One guy asks for money in a singsong voice, and repeats this little song: “🎶 Can you please spare a dollar for the homeless….. for the homeless..”🎶“.
(And then you get it stuck in your head).
But most have a story about their hardships, and then they ask for help. They prefer money, but usually will accept food, too. They have varying levels of success, depending on the time of day and the collective mood of the car. They’ve gotten their technique down.
However, a new addition to the A train is this guy who glares, brusquely asks for money, and then chastises everybody in the car about what cheap assholes they are. He hasn’t gotten his technique down.
There are people in the car who get insulted and offended. I get neither insulted or offended. Surely, his fundraising tactic is not very effective, but I always felt the presence of panhandlers/homeless people says more about a systemic problem than it does about them. And if lecturing us for being cheap assholes makes him feel better, I won’t begrudge him that. His situation is much worse than mine or that of most of us.
There are many stories about how how people perceived as homeless have a a very elaborate scam going, and are actually living a life of luxury. People love to cite that as an example. However that is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps the story they have is not 100% accurate, but I am not going to conjecture that it is 100% false and they are playing us. Generally speaking, as a rule, I would believe that a person who is panhandling on the subway has a situation much worse than yours or mine. And the outrageous anecdotes about the Tribecca Lofts and the fortune somebody made on the subway from panhandling; I’m not saying they’re not true, I’m saying they are very much the exception. NYC has 60,000 homeless people; that’s half the population of Albany. And because a few have a racket going, does not negate this issue. The economy is rough, the assistance programs are rife with red tape and caveats, many homeless shelters are dangerous and many of the homeless are mentally ill, lacking the mental faculty to navigate all this. Panhandling on the subway is a simpler and more immediate solution, especially if they believe their situation is temporary.
When faced with the narrative of the supposed panhandler living in luxury, I always like to employ what I call the “Magic Fairy” scenario. If, when conjecturing the supposed luxury of the panhandlers, a magic fairy appeared and offered you the opportunity to switch places with the panhandler in question, most people probably wouldn’t. Even if they seemed so sure they were running an elaborate and profitable scam. Deep down inside we are pretty sure in the vast majority of cases, again, their situation is much worse than ours.
Which brings us to another interesting dynamic. While we have a system that does not meet the needs of the homeless, are we enabling by giving handouts? I think on a theoretical level perhaps, but I don’t think giving a homeless guy a dollar is going to excaberate the problem significantly, especially since it is already there.
From a personal standpoint, the metric of whether I give ie extremely arbitrary. In theory, my rule is this:
If somebody asks you point blank for help, and it does not cause you significant hardship, you should help them in the best way you can.
Do I always practice what I preach?
In practice, when asked for a handout or donation, a number of x factors come into play. Do I have any loose change or small bills in my pocket? Are they easily accessible? Do I already have plans for that change or $1 bill? Will I be able to access that change/$1 bill without displaying larger bills? Do I have a power bar or granola bar on my person? And sadly, it also depends on what kind of mood I am in.
I go out to brunch with my wife every Sunday, and I buy toothpaste that is supposed to “whiten my teeth”, and food that makes ridiculous nutritional claims. I live in a nice, bright apartment in Manhattan. I never worry about whether I am going to eat, or whether I have a comfortable, safe place to sleep.
Panhandlers make us uncomfortable because they should. They remind of us an unresolved systemic problem. Conjecturing the life of luxury they supposedly have, or giving them a dollar every now and then might make us feel better, but the problem is still there.
And while I do not like being confronted, so I probably wouldn’t give anything to the guy who lectures the subway car for being cheap assholes, I do hope his situation improves, because that will likely improve his attitude. Venting frustration and resentment because you feel you are in a world where nobody will help you is very understandable.
I don’t hope he becomes a better panhandler. I hope he finds himself in a situation where panhandling is unnecessary. Because as long as there are people who find it necessary, there is always room for improvement.