The handwritten sign reads “Homeless-Hungry-God Bless.”
Coming to a stop at an intersection, I eagerly await the signal light to turn green. Around the corner, I see a gentleman approaching while holding a cardboard sign reading “Homeless-Hungry-God Bless.” Being the kind soul I am, I decided to do the right thing.
At any street intersection or during a stroll downtown, we might witness a similar cardboard sign hand scratched with a solicitous request for food, work, or money or verbally greeted by a kind yet demanding, “You got some spare some change?” Moved by either sympathy or disdain, our assumptions and stereotype about the panhandler will filter any response. More times than not, we conclude that the individual is homeless.
The panhandler and the person experiencing homelessness might be standing at the same proverbial street corner of American poverty. However, I suggest they are heading in opposite directions.
According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing and contrary to popular belief, “Only a small percentage of homeless people panhandle and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless.” Yet, the American public tends to “lump” them together. There is a difference between the two, and it is significant.
The differences between the experience of homelessness and panhandling should inform our responses and public policy for addressing issues that impact our community.
The panhandler who greets or invades our space does so with a sense of urgency, demanding an immediate response. The urgent-laden tactic is purposeful. The pitch may be exceedingly polite or abrasive, direct or calculatingly subtle, all to mask or hide the true intent and whether the need is legitimate. This brief personal exchange becomes nothing more than a shallow relationship of convenience.
The individual experiencing homelessness declares many of the exact needs as handwritten on a makeshift cardboard sign but does not hide behind it. Unlike the panhandler, they will seek assistance and engagement with a provider who can verify the need and together chart a path towards housing. This relationship becomes a meaningful relationship of empowerment.
So, I did the right thing.
I gave no money.
I did not become a small-time philanthropist.
To have done so would do nothing about the experience of homelessness.
This commentary was originally published in the March 2022 edition of Volunteer Ministry Center's newsletter.
The Rev. Dr. Bruce Spangler is CEO of Volunteer Ministry Center, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending and preventing homelessness in Knoxville, Tenn. Spangler is former pastor of West View UMC, Washington Pike UMC, and Central UMC (all of ...