Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.

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42 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Situations kept me away from the League during the charity symposium, so this is my first taste of it. Not much to say here, other than I really loved this, Jonathan.Report

  2. Avatar Joey Jo Jo says:

    Really like this Jonathan.

    Socks, can openers, duct tape, superglue, toilet paper, bottled water, zip ties, batteries, MREs, blankets and bus passes rate high on a homeless person’s wish list.Report

  3. Avatar greginak says:

    I worked with homeless people for many years. In general my experience was that the most mentally ill or emotionally damaged or very far from seeking the services they needed like treatment or mental health treatment were never the ones panhandling. The teens that i knew who panhandled were the slicker ones, the ones with good verbal skills who could weave a good sad yarn or the those who were trying to scrape up a few quick dollars for drugs.

    The reasons to not give to panhandling are valid although i understand why people still give.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

      I used to take the attitude “I’m not going to give him a couple of bucks, he’s just going to spend it on beer!!!” until I realized “you know what, if I were in his situation, a belly full of beer would be something close to the best thing that happened to me all week”.

      So I’ve started giving them a couple of bucks again.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

        The only people panhandling i’ve given money to were those i knew a bit. Even then i would give a ride before money. Of course that is more dangerous.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

        I knew a woman who worked the corner of Canyon and Broadway in Boulder back when I was in school. I used to walk that route everyday on the way to class and we quickly struck up a friendship. Turns out, she wasn’t homeless. She had an apartment in Denver. And she took the bus into Boulder everyday because the money was better than down in the city.

        Her chosen career was panhandling. She was wonderful. I gave her a few bucks every time I saw her, two or three times a week for over a year.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

        I have a similar worry to Jay’s when I am approached by a panhandler. But I also feel this tremendous pressure to give anyway. Especially when I’m already handling a lot of stress (which is often) it’s easier to give in to the pressure and lighten my wallet of its spare change.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to greginak says:

      I hate to agree with this but my own experience jives with it. I remember walking through downtown in the late evening and seeing some younger pan handlers pulling Nikes out of their backpacks when their “shift” ended. Permanently ended any hope of a panhandler visibly under 30 getting a dime from me.

      Couple that with acquaintances who worked in corner stores and liquor stores talking about the evening rush when the pan handlers who made out well came in to buy cheap liquor and the ones who made out poorly came in to buy Listerine and I just don’t have it in me to hand out money to them. The Husband and I donate to a local shelter; a Lutheran Church ironically enough. I’m down with paying for beds. It gets cold in the winter here.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to greginak says:

      Oh, so true. I live in a city.
      There are folks that raid dumpsters behind the colleges nightly.
      They aren’t the panhandlers.

      I have less objection to people giving money to buskers
      (at least they’re providing something of value…)

      If your heartstrings are pulled, donate to a shelter or an organization.
      They’ll know who really needs it.Report

  4. Avatar Fnord says:

    Oh, look, a case study in Mr. Kuznicki’s point.

    You’ve heard the arguments about how direct giving to panhandlers fails to help those most in need. You don’t, as far as I can tell, have any refutations of those arguments. But you give to them anyway. At least, to the one panhandler who happens to have entrenched himself in a spot where his path crosses yours. Because you’ve decided that’s the sort of person you are.

    You say your $15-20 is no great expense to you. Call up a local food bank or shelter, ask them if they could use that $20. Ask them if that money would make a difference in the lives of the poor in your community. I think we both know what their answer will be.

    Maybe you do have refutations of the arguments against giving to panhandlers. Maybe you have reasons to think the shelters and food banks in your community wouldn’t do more good in your community than dropping a coin in the cup of the one beggar who happens to have staked out a spot that you happen to pass frequently. If so, fine, great.

    But if not, it sounds a whole lot like actually helping the poor in your community is not your real goal. Just like Mr. Kuznicki said.Report

    • Avatar Russell Saunders in reply to Fnord says:

      And again we find ourselves with an argument premised on the notion that one can only do one kind of good.

      Has Jonathan indicated in his lovely little essay that he gives that homeless man money in lieu of donating to other more efficient charities? Does it comprise the whole of his charitable giving? Because I certainly don’t see that. And without that, I don’t know your basis for saying helping the poor is not his “real” goal. Can’t he have more than one goal? Can’t giving a couple of bucks to make one poor person’s life marginally better be a goal unto itself, completely independent of any other giving he might happen to do?

      You’re making far too many assumptions to make such sweeping judgments.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Russell Saunders says:

        And again we find ourselves with an argument premised on the notion that one can only do one kind of good.

        I don’t think so. Both kinds of good are presumably very similar here — the provision of basic, low-level-Maslow-hierarchy needs.

        After we’ve decided that that’s what we want to do, all that’s left is a question of efficiency.Report

        • Yes, but saying “you’re not helping the poor because the money you give to that panhandler could be going to a food bank” is specious. Jonathan can give the guy a few bucks when he sees him, which hopefully makes the guy just a little bit better off in some way. That does not preclude his ability to give additional sums to whatever worthy causes that he sees fit, including ones that use similar sums to deliver more efficient care to the hungry as a whole.Report

        • I wrote something down below that I should have written up here. The coins that I am dropping in cups are not coming at the expense of other charitable donations*. I am not making the argument that this is the best way to help the poor. I do believe, however, that the $0.25 or $1 that I give to the man on the street is of more help to him than the cup of coffee I might buy myself at work tomorrow.

          I should also note, that I have not had a chance to read your post (though I will!), so my post wasn’t meant as any sort of reply to yours, even if that is how it may have worked out. It seems to me efficiency is a really important factor in determining how to donate money, goods or time. I’m also open to the idea that charity is signalling (which, it seems, your post covers as well), however, I’ve made no conclusions yet, and look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter.

          * I know what you’re thinking – a libertarian making charitable donations? Pshaw!

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Fnord says:

      I think Jonathan is trying to get at something different here. It may be that his motives could be characterized as a type of signalling, but I think Jonathan’s trying to say that, in effect, such charitable signalling can have value to the recipient that otherwise more “efficient” or “effective” giving cannot. In the case of giving money to the panhandler, even though doing so may be less economically effective and help fewer people, it also acknowledges that panhandler as both fully human and a member of the community in a way that impersonal donations cannot.Report

      • There is also another, potentially more valuable signal that Jonathan is communicating in this story, one that represents an investment of sorts. That is the signal Jonathan is sending to his daughter, that the poor and the homeless are not just lumps on the sidewalk or images on the TV, but are in fact real human beings in her community, no matter how broadly or narrowly one defines “community,” and are worthy of the same type of compassion as any other human.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          Boom goes the dynamite.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          A view that could probably be better served through donating time at the local soup kitchen, in my opinion.Report

          • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to Kim says:

            If we walk past a man sitting on the sidewalk asking for money, and my four year old asks, ‘why is that man sitting there?’ I don’t think the best answer is, ‘let’s do some work at a soup kitchen’.

            I realize I never finished off that little anecdote in the post, but my daughter and I did have a conversation about why people sit on the sidewalk and why we do what we can to help them. And “doing what we can” is not just dropping a coin in a cup, it’s donating clothes and toys to charity drives, giving money to charity and giving our time and efforts to charitable endeavours.

            Maybe one day she and I will volunteer at a soup kitchen. Maybe we won’t, but she certainly won’t be brought up thinking that the only acts of charity we ever need to do is drop a coin in a cup, if we happen to have a coin.

            And here’s a thing about efficient giving, I could store away a coin every time I would have given it to someone on the street, but, you know, I’m not really that organized. That loonie or quarter that gets dropped in a cup doesn’t come at the expense of another, allegedly more efficient, charitable donation. It probably comes at the expesne of a cup of coffee.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Kim says:

            If you command a reasonable wage for part-time work, you’d be more efficient taking a second job and donating the proceeds than volunteering to serve soupk.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I think the whole idea of charity as signalling is SIGNIFICANTLY less moral than other forms of charity. It may be more ethical in your community, but it certainly isn’t in mine.

    • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to Fnord says:

      “You’ve heard the arguments about how direct giving to panhandlers fails to help those most in need.”

      Well, “most in need” is a term would need to be explored, but whether or not this action helps those in most in need isn’t necessarily the right question. Perhaps we could ask, if I don’t give this man this coin, will I do anything with it that will provide more help to anyone?

      In those moments, my goal is to offer a little help to a person, not a demographic. That’s important, too.Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        You could give the money to the guy who bags your groceries, and you’d be helping a person (it’s not even obvious that the panhandler is worse off than the grocery-bagger; a sizable portion of the homeless population is employed).Report

  5. Avatar Herb says:

    I give nothing to panhandlers. Ever.

    I justify it by acknowledging that in the modern age, panhandling is not a very good strategy for improving one’s life after reaching rock-bottom. It is, however, a good method for scamming people.

    I do have a heart, though. And it broke a little bit when I read this:

    “So I will keep giving my daughter a coin to give the man, until that man no longer needs it.”

    That man needs…something*. But it’s not a coin from your daughter. That’s what he wants.

    (* I don’t know him, so I can’t prescribe a remedy. I will assume, however, that he has the same basic needs as everyone else, which are better met through other means.)Report

  6. Avatar Ramblin' Rod says:

    As a truck driver, I’ve got what amounts to a bulls-eye painted on my truck for panhandlers. Some of them just see truck stops as target-rich environments, I guess. Or they think we all carry around a lot of cash (wrong), or make a lot of money (good lord, WRONG!), or we’re all single and spend our money on hookers (wrong, and not once).

    I’ll give some of them props for at least taking the time to concoct a story of sorts. Likely it might even be true once in a while. Usually something really sad about driving from somewhere to somewhere and running out of gas and could you please help us out a little bit?? I guess it’s better than pimping out your under-age daughter, which actually happens now and then, and it’s certainly better than out-and-out robbery (which also happens).

    It’s to the point where the ones I respect the most are the lot lizards (prostitutes) who are at least offering value for cash. I turn them down, but I do so politely.

    It’s gotten tot he point where I just uniformly say no, often I won’t even open the window to talk to them. I have no idea if they’re scamming me or on the up and up, or if they’re even vaguely deserving or not. Or heaven forbid, I open the window and look down at the wrong end of a gun.

    Fish that noise; giving these people money just encourages them. I’m not unsympathetic to the truly needy. I am, after all, a bleeding-heart liberal and I’ve been in tight financial spots myself. But as others have noted, this isn’t the kind of help they really need or the best way of going about getting it.Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy says:

    “…but I am far more comfortable living in a community where the indigent are cared for by their neighbours to whatever degree possible.”

    I think the lessons you are imparting on your daughter (which I would suggest include explicit discussion and not just quarters) are a big piece of the puzzle. I am fighting with my school to do more charity and volunteer work locally. And to remove the paternalism that so much of it entails. I want to get away from the mindset that we are helping folks through our good graces and towards one where we are recognizing ourselves as members of our community with a vested interest in its continued improvement. Community service and charity SHOULD be self-regarding. It should improve the self as well as the other because that which is given is not a one-way street, it must not always flow downhill. If we can impart these lessons through “suboptimal” giving, we might change mindsets in a way that leads to far greater change than even the most optimal initial offfering could have.Report

    • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to Kazzy says:

      There definitely is a life-lesson component to the story (though I would give to these people if there wasn’t).

      Small kids might not quite grasp the “efficiency” or “optimal” concepts with giving (though, it’s good to try to teach those as well), so if these suboptimal things help to build a sense a charitable-ness in kids, that’s a win.Report

  8. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I’m neither endorsing or rejecting panhandlers. But in Eau Claire, there were a gang of them who hit up drivers coming in and out of the mall areas. These guys were saying they made $400 a day.

    I don’t give to panhandlers. They can become aggressive. At a hotel in Detroit, I was accosted in Detroit by a Sad Story type with a New York accent who gave me an involved tale of being the victim of fraud. I picked up my phone and said I’d call the police, so this could all get straightened out: she decided to walk away very quickly. Trust me, Sad Story types are almost always frauds. When I see those panhandlers claiming to be ex-military, I ask them a few questions which would reveal if they really were in SE Asia or recent conflicts, something as simple as their MOS, they are always proven liars. Those folks really do give me a case of the ass: I hate that.

    Genuine need I understand. Panhandling is seldom genuine need. Give if you’d like. I don’t.Report

    • I increasingly share your perspective. The long hard luck stories really bother me, to the point of almost making me angry. I tend to think that if someone is going to ask for money, they should just ask for it and not waste my time.

      This sounds heartless, and to some degree it probably is. It probably results in me not helping out some people in true need. Even though I still occasionally give, I almost never do anymore.

      But I will say I have been talked out of a lot of money in my life, from “friends” in high school, to panhandlers, to one guy I met on the “L” who convinced me, without threats and with a story I knew (and that he knew I knew) was false, to give him about $40 or so (no joke, and it was probably more $). I knew almost every time that I was being played. And I knew (and know) that I am a sucker and an easy mark. I can be talked into doing a lot of things that I know don’t want to do. I must have some sort of guardian angel that has prevented me from being seriously hurt.

      This, incidentally, is a temperamental reason I can (probably) never be a libertarian. I might sign on to many of libertarianism’s policy prescriptions and accept its critique of state power. But there is a certain sense in which compulsion and coercion exist–or a sense of a weak will that I cannot shake–and these cannot be accounted for solely by violence or fraud, and these in my view go against what I see to be libertarianism’s spirit (although perhaps not its intellectual assumptions). There’s a sense in which we–or at least some of us–run into the fire and are later thankful that we escaped immolation.

      I realize this is a post about charity and not, ostensibly, about the “spirit” of libertarianism. So what I just wrote might be seen as a drive-by swipe at a political orientation/ideology for which I have a lot of respect. At the same time, I think the discussion of “charity” implicates the “spirit” of libertarianism, which I take to include faith in people’s ability to act in their rational interests and with free will, the celebration of personal autonomy, opposition to coercive intrusions upon that autonomy, and resistance to general claims about “our” “obligations” to “society” as ways to justify such intrusions.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        God(ess?)! I loathe the long story ones. Not only are they trying to get money but they’re wasting your time.Report

        • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to North says:


          Yeah, I guess my rant boils down to that.

          I would really like to forgo judgment. If someone’s situation is such that they think asking strangers for money is one of their better options, then it’s probably not my prerogative for judging how they go about doing it.

          That said, I don’t actually forgo judgment. I just tell myself I ought not to judge.Report

    • Without getting too far into the weeds as to what constitutes “aggressive panhandling”, I’ll certainly agree that I don’t like it, and I tend not to respond to as much. When the panhandling seems to turn into a big sales pitch, I’m much more wary.

      I’m certainly not arguning that I’m right, here. I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, but for me, with the information I have, giving to panhandlers is the right choice. I respect those who have weighed the evidence and come to a different conclusion.Report

      • Avatar M.A. in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        Round here they operate mostly on street corners. I can never tell when some of them are muttering to themselves due to mental illness, because they’re “rapping” to a beat they can only hear in their head, or because they’re on a bluetooth headset hidden behind their hair with a cell phone tucked in their pocket.

        I do get really freaked out when some of them step in front of cars. They’ll cross three lanes during a light to get to someone they think waved at them, and a few seem to think that they can keep standing there holding traffic hostage until someone gives them money. I’ve called the cops on one group several times because they were operating in tandem, turning a two-lane road into an unofficial “toll” zone. As I understand it, though, local ordinance only allows cops to hold them for about 48 hours, they can’t pin anything longer on them and the local DA’s office considers prosecution a waste of time.Report

  9. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    I was at a food truck near work one day when a woman hit me up for money. She said she was hungry and needed money for lunch.

    “How about I’ll buy you lunch,” I said. “Pick anything on the menu.” It was a middle eastern food truck, with grilled chicken, lamb, falafel, salads. A variety of different things. She ordered a lunch, and I paid for both of ours together.

    Here were the first words out of her mouth: “Could I have some money for cigarettes?”

    Now, I’m not looking for her to overflow with gratitude, but a thank-you might have been nice. I wished her a good day and left. I never saw whether or not she ate the lunch.

    I couldn’t tell whether I was being a chump (falling for her line!), or a good guy (I bought her lunch!) or just a dick (thinking ill of the homeless!). I could see good arguments for each.

    This really did happen. I’m not making it up. It was one of the key incidents that got me to thinking about how to be more effective at charity.Report

    • Avatar Elizabeth in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      I’ve had exactly this experience – except that I hung around for 5 mins and saw the panhandler throw away the lunch. 🙁

      Every single time I’ve checked, without exception, panhandlers have been scammers. That’s why I don’t give to panhandlers at all, ever.

      Actually, it’s not the only reason. Another reason is that I went to a talk a while ago which asked us to seriously evaluate how much money we give when we hand out a coin here and a coin there. I worked it out, and was rather shocked. I was walking around thinking of myself as a generous and charitable person (but the numbers said otherwise) – so I decided that I should actually give a substantial, premeditated amount to a charity which I knew would actually use it for good. So that’s what I did then, and have done ever since.

      Thanks for this symposium – I’ve just found it and am reading back through the posts!Report

  10. Avatar Major Zed says:

    True story from reliable source. Office worker on lunch break encounters older panhandler. Not wanting to give cash (for reasons cited above), offers to buy the man lunch. “Sure!” Off they go to fast food burger joint. At the register, panhandler is indignant. “Hey, I can pay for my own, you know,” and does. So then they sit down to a meal and get to know each other, down on his luck, etc. Worker is so flabbergasted he tells all his coworkers about it.Report

  11. Avatar Damon says:

    I’ll kick in here too as I have some personal experience with panhandlers and scammers.

    I was living in Seattle at the time. There were a lot of Native Americans panhandling in the Pike Place Market area. Seattle had an “aggressive panhandling law” at the time so they just sat on the sidewalk with a cup. I had some sympathy for them. They would engage you in conversation and generally were pleasant, but I soon realized that they really only wanted cash for booze. Too many times I saw sandwiches and other food left besides them they ignored.

    I was once hit up, still in Seattle, by a “I’m not a homeless person” with a sob story. It was, in fact, the SAME story I’d been hit with by the woman two weeks earlier. I professed to not having any money (true) and she wanted me to go to an ATM. NFW I’m going to an ATM with someone I don’t know.

    So, I didn’t give. One set didn’t want help, they only wanted booze. The other set only wanted to scam me. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.Report

  12. Avatar Phillip says:

    I would like to bring up a counter example.

    I live in Chicago, so I get my fair share of panhandlers and the like. Usually I try and give a little bit when I have it on me, mostly because I like doing small favors for people, and because I’m very aware of the inescapable grind life becomes when housing gets… intermittent. (I’ve not been there, but I worked for a while at a debt collection agency, and it almost killed my soul.)

    There was one night I was walking home, on a mostly empty street, and I was approached by an old woman in front of a church. She told me a story about being in a gap between social security checks, and unable to contact her family. Basic sob story, right? I didn’t have any money on me, but I did go into a store to pull out $20 to give to her. Not much of an imposition for me, but she was crying when I gave it to her, and trying to tell me she’d pay it all back when the next SS check arrived. I begged off and wished her good luck.

    For a typical panhandler, I did everything wrong. I stopped and listened, and I went to an ATM for the cash. But this struck me as one of the few times in my life that someone looked at me like I had done the right thing, and it made a difference in their life.

    So I guess most of my annoyance with panhandlers is that they obscure the situations where the sob story is genuine and person to person charity is the best way to meet it. Sometimes you are not being taken advantage of. And every time I remember that, I think about the casual cruelty that a blanket “sorry, I never give” represents to someone who really needs help.Report