Aggressive panhandling--does it work?
March 25, 2010 11:49 AM   Subscribe

So what's the deal with aggressive panhandling? Does it work? I have been experiencing a lot of it recently and some of it has scared me. I don't so much need self-defense advice; I just want to understand the phenomenon.

So it's spring in my city of Portland, Oregon, and the good weather has been bringing out even more panhandlers and curious street people than usual-- especially downtown and on SE 82nd.

I worked in a homeless shelter for several years and am not automatically terrified by the existence of people who are on the street. I know the basic reasons people tend to be on the street and have done my bit to help. My standard response to panhandlers, for various reasons based on that work experience, is to say "No, sorry" and move on.

However, recently some of these panhandlers and people have become super-aggressive. On the light side of aggressive is this exchange: 1) Got some change? 2) No, sorry. 3) F you!

On the heavier, scarier side are the people that actually pursue me down the street or through the park AFTER I've told them "No, sorry." I end up having to stare them in the eye and be rude myself to make them go away.

On the extremely scary side, some strange aggressive guy recently pursued me down a sidewalk on SE 82nd and would not stop approaching with his interrogatives about injustice in Vietnam (part I of his epic four-part pitch for support, I felt). I was with my four year old son, and we were getting cornered at a stoplight with raging cars on two sides and no other pedestrians for miles. That was a weird and tricky one.

Now I have two points of curiosity about these encounters.

1) Am I attracting this? Is something in the way I walk is sending off signals that either suggest I'm a good prospect, or an especially interesting challenge? Note: I've been doing martial arts for years and am sensitive to body language. I'm short but pretty beefy. I don't walk with my chest stuck out. I do tend to look at people directly.

2) For the panhandler, does this type of behavior work? I presume it does, otherwise people would not be doing it. But why and HOW does it work?

I would love to hear from someone with panhandling experience.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
2) For the panhandler, does this type of behavior work? I presume it does, otherwise people would not be doing it.

I think you're assuming a level of rationality that may not apply to some/many/a few panhandlers. Like the guy ranting about Vietnam? Not rational.
posted by rtha at 11:59 AM on March 25, 2010 [7 favorites]

even more panhandlers and curious street people than usual

That's probably your problem right there. If you're the only panhandler on the street, you'll end up with way more cash than if you're one of a hundred panhandlers.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:03 PM on March 25, 2010

(ie, if you're the only panhandler around, you won't have to resort to chasing people down or harassing them to get some change)
posted by oinopaponton at 12:04 PM on March 25, 2010

So, I think it is what people think they can get away with.

For instance, in Spain I was visiting a touristy/shoppy area and walked through a somewhat narrow passage whereupon a gypsy lady stepped in front of me and did some sort of "blessing" gave me a flower etc. Charming right? Until she put a pan up in front of me and her disposition changed. She was not going to let me pass until I payed her...

It's just the way they play the game.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 12:06 PM on March 25, 2010

But why and HOW does it work?

I live in a place where mugging isn't too uncommon, and I think at least here, there is an implicit threat to escalate (be it real or bluff) in aggressive panhandling when there is no one around. I have definitely felt that way during an encounter like this, at least. (But, I didn't give him any money, and he walked away.)
posted by advil at 12:07 PM on March 25, 2010

No, but good luck!

"...My standard response to panhandlers, for various reasons based on that work experience, is to say "No, sorry" and move on."

I look them in the eye - that's an important part -- and say in a friendly voice, "No, but good luck."

I've have used that particular phrase for years. It has worked 100% of the time. You can say it with many different inflections. You are being firm, direct, honest, but also acknowledging them as a human being. It's always seems to sit well with the person who is panhandling and I usually get a thank you or some other kind of friendly response back. I have a few friends who have started using the phrase (and eye contact) after hearing me use it and they report it works for them as well.
posted by trixare4kids at 12:09 PM on March 25, 2010 [7 favorites]

I do tend to look at people directly.

In my experience (in Portland and SF) is that any sort of acknowledgement, including looking directly at them, triggers the "they'll listen to me" impulse. Its hard for me to check it, and I feel shitty about doing it, but I've really found that not making eye contact is really the best way of dealing with it. Also, for what it's worth, between SF, Portland, Boston and Seattle, Portland has consistently had the most aggressive and sometimes nasty panhandlers I've seen.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:12 PM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't like the look of the panhandler, rather than "No, sorry", I find "No, not right now" works well.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:20 PM on March 25, 2010

I agree that completely ignoring panhandlers works best but it makes you feel like a heel.
posted by ghharr at 12:27 PM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

i used to live in berkeley, where the panhandlers were aggressive and would call you all sorts of abusive names, follow you, etc. and this was right next to school, and they'd target students (ie me). it was rough! i usually went with "no, sorry, no cash on me" or straight up ignoring as if they didn't exist (though i felt bad about it) and had to endure being screamed at as i walked down the street that i was a cheap bitch etc or any amount of weird racial slurs (i am asian). shaking off those that follow you and show you pics of their "kids" with lengthy sob stories usually had to involve "i'm in a hurry right now, sorry, i have to go" or crossing streets, ducking into shops, etc... there's no magic bullet to get out of it i'm afraid, i don't think you're giving off some kind of vibe that attracts them that you can change, they're just looking for opportunity, ANY opportunity. once while walking to class a clearly drunk homeless guy suddenly came lurching towards me as if about to attack or hug screaming for money and the friend i was with just firmly grabbed me by the nape of my coat and pulled me out of his path (i was surprised/scared) and kept us going firmly forward as if he didn't exist and nothing had happened... out of all my friends at uni i think she had the least problems with the homeless people near our dorms, apartments, and school
posted by raw sugar at 12:36 PM on March 25, 2010

Of all the cities I've lived in; by far the worst for aggressive pan handlers is Portland OR. I think part of that is caused by people in Portland being really friendly and non-confrontational. Which has the unwelcome side effect of making panhandlers uncommonly bold.

Also SE 82nd is a notoriously shady strip. I grew up near SE 82 near Division and we never walked up there. It's cleaned up a lot in the last 15 years but still harbors a large amount of crazy-sketchy.

In contrast I've been living in Boston the last few years and the average person on the street is far more likely to shout at, insult, or physically confront panhandlers which I suspect changes the general dynamic.

I find total ignoring and non engagement works best for me.

all evidence anecdotal
posted by French Fry at 12:42 PM on March 25, 2010

If you are regularly walking along a stretch where you know aggressive panhandlers terrorize people, you should consider having earphones on, or a cellphone to your ear - and ignore utterly any remarks from the panhandlers. Remember, a lot of them are mentally ill, so don't confront or escalate - ignore.
posted by VikingSword at 12:45 PM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree that swallowing your compassion and ignoring works best, especially since you're talking about irrational people -- men and women, too. I've had not one but two female panhandlers follow me down the street calling me a goddamn hooker.
or maybe they see something I don't see, who knows
posted by changeling at 12:51 PM on March 25, 2010

This is kind of weird, but I always say "Oh, no thank you," like they're offering me money, instead of the other way around. This always confuses them which gives me time to walk briskly away.
posted by elder18 at 1:09 PM on March 25, 2010 [10 favorites]

I once gave a panhandler 10 dollars. Stupid? Maybe. Good for the soul? Definite yes. I didn't care what he did with that money. I just know I wouldnt want to be in that situation. I also believe it's because you're a guy so they like to aggressively pick on men and I may be out of line here but I'm assuming you're white? I ask that because men who have been in the streets see a seemingly together white man, sometimes automatically assume hes weak. That happened when I went on a date with this Italian guy and it didn't stop the cat calls from other guys when I was clearly with him.
Anyways, I sometimes give eye contact, sometimes I don't. It depends on the vobe I get from the other person. But when you treat them like a human being instead of a nuisance they respond in kind.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 1:19 PM on March 25, 2010

I have a personal policy of never giving money, though I will offer food or something else that can provide a more immediate form of help if it's available to me.

The other day a man was roving the grocery store parking lot. He wasn't rude but he was "aggressive" enough to walk up next to cars that had just pulled into a spot and stand in front of the driver's door until somebody got out and talked to him. His story was that he was traveling through town and got stranded with no money and no gas. I told him I had no cash but I'd be happy to drive him to the gas station and fill up a can to help him get back on the road.

His response: "Oh, you don't have any money?" And he walked away.

Another time I was leaving McDonald's with a quick, artery-clogging lunch, when I encountered a panhandler with an "anything helps!" sign. I realized he could use the food more than I could, so I offered him my hot apple pie.

"No thanks," he said, "I'm trying to watch my weight!"

Then there was a third time when a guy came up to me with a story about how he just lost his job and didn't know what to do, and he just wanted a few bucks so he could buy a six-pack of beer. At least he was honest, I guess.

I know there are people in real bad situations and I don't mean to minimize their plight. But offering an alternative to cash can be a real litmus test for discovering who's really in need, and who's just lazy. Whoever said that beggars can't be choosers hasn't spent much time on the street, at least not in my corner of the world. Of course, cash is fast and easy to give out compared with other choices. Many times I don't have food or time at my disposal so I can only say "sorry, I don't have any cash." Which is usually true, as these days I purchase everything with my debit card and seldom carry greenbacks. This answer has always been sufficient for panhandlers here; if they know you're broke they won't try to get blood from a stone.

Of course, that assumes they're more rational than your Vietnam guy. And I've never yet encountered anybody as hostile as the people you described. One advantage of living in a smaller town, I guess.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:40 PM on March 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm a woman, I get targeted by aggressive beggars a lot, and frankly sometimes it scares me.

But I don't think it's anything you are doing, they target everyone. A friend suggested once it was because I wore nice shoes - but they still target me if I'm in very casual clothes and old, grotty sneakers.

There are a lot of aggresive beggars near my workplace, they target the office workers at lunchtime and after work.

I started saying "Sorry" or "Sorry, no" or "No, sorry" and they would shout insults, swear words, threats.

Then I just started saying "No" or "NO!"

Finally, I just started pretending that they didn't exist, trying not to react in any way to their request, don't look at them, just look straight ahead as if they are not even there, or take a little detour to avoid them.

It seems to work the best...
posted by Oceanesque at 1:40 PM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you look at Portland's sit/lie ordinances which were repealed as unconstitutional twice, as well as the mayor's new initiative you'll see a pattern. It's the city, not you. The bulk of services for the homeless population, friendliness, youth, and liberal leanings of the city often attract a large amount of panhandlers here. Also, you are female, and thus perceived as more likely to be compassionate, in a generic sense. But basically everyone here that travels downtown is in the same boat.

In any case, I use the same wording and tone with panhandlers as I do with aggressive canvassers downtown, "not today, sorry" as I'm walking away.
posted by goodnight moon at 1:59 PM on March 25, 2010

1) When I'm with a young kid, people talk to me and interact with me more--negative and positive. They might also think that you will do more in order to protect your child and keep the peace. Don't know if you're not with him. Think about it from their perspective, though: you look like you're not likely to get in a physical fight with them, so the worst you can probably do is say "no". That makes it a numbers game, just like telemarketing. They keep going until someone says yes. In terms of just yelling at you or calling you names, well, there are a lot of reasons why they might do that.

2) Again, it's a numbers game if by "work" you mean "get them money". They also might enjoy it or get some satisfaction out of it, even if they don't get money. They might want to do it despite the fact that it doesn't do anything positive for them. They might think it works, when in reality it doesn't work as well as another approach. It might just suit their personality or skills more than a friendlier or more passive approach.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:00 PM on March 25, 2010

Being aware of the situation is also helpful too. If you can suss out which people are the ones that are actually in need and which ones are the ones picking out new marks, you'll have a much easier time. Most people are just marking.

Like this one instance where I got into an argument with somebody because he yelled at me for not giving him any money. He wasn't crazy or ill. Turned out he was just an asshole trying to intimidate rich looking people into giving him money. I guess it was a compliment.

Or one dude that actually threw money back at me because "what the fuck am I gonna do with 50 cent?! Gimme 2 dollars so I can get chicken and rice." I just left the fifty cents there anyway.

If you've lived in an area for a while that has panhandlers, you ever notice that there's sort of a cast of characters running around? In Berkeley, there seems to be an influx of "homeless" people or "travelers" every fall. It's when the new students have arrived. During the winter they run off to Santa Monica or someplace warmer. At least in Berkeley, you can usually tell the ones that are truly in shit situations by noticing who stays in Berkeley during the winter.

Finally, and it's totally counter-intuitive, my own method:

Look 'em in the eye. Give em a half-grin like you can't be bothered to give a real smile. Say "How you doin." like you got somewheres to go and give em a slight nod of the head too.
posted by bam at 2:11 PM on March 25, 2010

During my tenure at Cornell, there was a sudden spike of panhandlers and homeless people in downtown Ithaca, NY. One of the long-term residents said this was normal, and local scuttlebutt was that other cities would pay for a bus ticket for homeless people to get them to Ithaca, which had a reputation as being "better" for homeless people (Better support from the local government, or perhaps better pickings while panhandling).

I never did verify the authencicity of this claim, but if you're suddenly seeing an increase in activity, it may be more than the weather - there may have been a migration of sorts, either within the city or from outside.
posted by GJSchaller at 2:17 PM on March 25, 2010

Seattle is yet another city to have ordinances that ban agressive panhandling. It does seem that panhandlers are way more agressive than they were 20 years ago, not sure if it is due to a change in social culture, the big meth problem (meth users are usually crazy and agressive as opposed to people who smoke marijuana and are quite mellow), the increased homeless (read: desperate) population, or the many people who have lost comprehensive mental health services and are now wandering the streets.
posted by MsKim at 2:23 PM on March 25, 2010

Huh, Portland has been in my experience one of the less aggressive places as far as panhandlers go. (Try Edmonton sometime...damn.) If I have some spare change in my pocket I will sometimes give it, but if not I just say, "No I can't" and keep walking. Same thing as with the guys/gals on Hawthorne who ask me if I want to save the wolves. If they shout after me, I just ignore and keep walking.
posted by medeine at 2:36 PM on March 25, 2010

More confrontational behavior with loss of respect for rights/privacy of others is on the rise. For examples. see the disorderly yelling in Congress, and the threats to those who voted for the health bill
posted by Cranberry at 2:37 PM on March 25, 2010

1) Am I attracting this?

I don't think so. I have a serious street-ready bitchface and I live in a city with an aggressive panhandling ordinance (Chicago) and I get this occasionally, too.* I really think the weather might have something to do with it. We had a few lovely spring-like days here last week and they brought a huge spike in violent crimes. More people are outside and people get kind of antsy when the weather warms up.

How responsive are the police in your area to this kind of thing? Could you credibly threaten to call 911, especially in a situation like the one you describe with your son and the Man Who Was Very Passionate about Vietnam?

(*One quick anecdote: Last week there was a guy behind my regular post-work bus stop asking people for fifty cents. If he received any pennies, he would immediately throw them, along with some choice insults, at the backs of the retreating donors. If the donors turned the corner before he ran out of pennies, he would throw the pennies at passing cars.)
posted by jennyb at 2:56 PM on March 25, 2010

It's a real point of contention here in Portland as you probably know and isn't something that we "do" well. I won't want to take sides on this particular holy war (ask me about cyclists! heh) but you're not imagining it.

A huge part of the problem in my experience is a sense of entitlement. We have a lot of "hobo tourists" who jump trains, etc specifically for the panhandling. I bet you that dollar they want that 90% of the kids with a cat on a string on Morrison and in front of Powells and so forth that they aren't from here. But they were told by friends that "Portland is a cool city and easy money" so they flock here and, well, expect to get paid, similar to what bam said upthread. I've talked to a few of them and I have yet to meet one who is actually from here.

Growing up, we had this frequently in Upper Haight where every day the bridge and tunnel crew would come over and park themselves out in front of Double Rainbow or the McDonalds by the park and demand money all day then take BART back home to San Rafael or Dublin or wherever. It's just like that here, except more ...seasonal.

We do, however, have a genuine homeless problem. We have a lot of genuinely desperate people here as well as our share of mentally ill who do need help. But I've never once had a problem with any of them. Almost every single aggressive encounter I've had has been with some white kid with dreadlocks from the Midwest.
posted by geckoinpdx at 3:58 PM on March 25, 2010

I feel like 82nd is kind of a different environment than downtown. I think if you feel threatened on 82nd and doubly so with your kid with you, you should call the non-emergency police line and report the guy. 82nd is busy... with cars, not people. It's more anonymous and the people who are hard on their luck and panhandling on 82nd strike me as sketchier and loonier. After all, if they weren't they'd be downtown where there are lots more people to panhandle. The downtown hobos probably know they'll get in trouble and the police are close by if they start acting like assholes. Not so on 82nd.

What are you doing to attract it? Nothing. If you're a woman then that's enough to attract most of the worst of asshole behavior that's out there. But, regardless of what you're wearing or what you're doing, it's not your fault if someone treats you like that.

I usually say: "No, sorry" and keep walking. I haven't had too many aggro situations other than one guy in Old Town who was being a crazy asshole and just picking on me because I'm a woman. He followed me muttering louder and louder about whores and bitches and your typical crazy dude schtick. It was unnerving to say the least. I should have called the cops on him. I would now.

503-823-3333 is the number, More info. I have that number in my phone. Of course, if it is an emergency and the guy is blocking you or becoming violent, flag down a person or a bus and call 911.
posted by amanda at 4:38 PM on March 25, 2010

I've noticed more aggressive panhandling lately, too, perhaps because of the cities that I've been in, but maybe because of the times?

My favorite trick is similar to elder18's: I say "nope!" as though I were delivering good news, with a smile (but usually no eye contact), and I don't break stride in the slightest.
posted by salvia at 4:54 PM on March 25, 2010

My working theory: alcoholics, (the majority of) schizophrenics, and the temporarily displaced are not particularly likely to engage people who don't want to give them change -- the people who get up in my face and insist on this handout right now sometimes seem like drug addicts to me. Maybe the drug trade in your area has changed/intensified since last year?

Of course, I don't have any shred of proof past what I see week to week in my neighborhood, which attracts some panhandlers and always has good weather. I wish someone would do some investigative reporting on the homeless that doesn't end in a feel-good movie like The Soloist, at least because it would help me navigate my commute (handing everyone cellos and waiting for the genius to come out hasn't been effective).
posted by Valet at 5:49 PM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's you. I look like I don't have two nickels to rub together (because I don't), but panhandlers still come after me. I look at them like they're crazy and tell them, "sorry, can't help you." If they get aggressive, I'll ask them point blank, "What makes you think I have any money?" or "Do I look like I have money?" and walk.

As to why they're aggressive, yes, it works sometimes. Sometimes people give them money because it will shut them up and because the aggression adds guilt. Also, sometimes they're aggressive because they really do have disdain for office workers, soccer moms, and other stereotypes who "look down" on them but who they depend on for a living.

Some panhandlers can make nearly $200 (maybe more) a day on a good day. They don't all spend it on booze and drugs - a lot of them live in motels and those aren't cheap. They also cannot buy groceries so they have to eat take out - not cheap. I read some articles on it and talked to some panhandlers when I lived in a motel for about six months in Virginia Beach and made their acquaintance.
posted by patheral at 6:39 PM on March 25, 2010

I come from a country where the beggars are very aggressive. You should not walk near them, not look at them, don't slow down, and don't have any valuables on display.
posted by meepmeow at 9:00 PM on March 25, 2010

I always say, apologetically, "Sorry, I don't have any cash on me." Which is always true. I've never had anyone be aggressive or rude to me, since they know it won't magically make cash appear on my person.
posted by Nattie at 10:08 PM on March 25, 2010

They don't all spend it on booze and drugs - a lot of them live in motels and those aren't cheap. They also cannot buy groceries so they have to eat take out - not cheap.

Not to derail, but why couldn't homeless people buy groceries? If it's because they don't have a fridge or anything, I am sure that a loaf a bread and some peanut butter would cost much less than a take-out meal, and last longer.
posted by amicamentis at 9:48 AM on March 26, 2010

Not to derail, but why couldn't homeless people buy groceries? If it's because they don't have a fridge or anything, I am sure that a loaf a bread and some peanut butter would cost much less than a take-out meal, and last longer.

Well, think about it, if you buy a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter it *will* cost less and last longer than a day of $5 meals at McD's but that means you'll be eating nothing but peanut butter and bread for three meals a day for about two days (figure one to two sandwiches per meal to get up to about 1400 calories a day) - then you have to buy another loaf of bread and another jar of peanut butter and repeat. Sure they can buy other things, chips, cereal, etc... but where are they going to store that stuff? I mean there's no guarantee that they'll make enough money to pay for the room every week, so it's not like they have a place to keep it.

One lady I knew was kicked out by her husband, she had three kids to feed. She did buy a few things and kept them in her car, but they didn't buy much because keeping food was just a calling card for roaches (even in the car). They mostly ate out. It's almost impossible to get a job without an address or references, and the homeless shelters are full in most places. She was doing the best she could. She couldn't stay long in VA because her kids were not in school and VA is a mandatory education state so on top of everything else, she ran the risk of being fined for not having her kids in school. Really, I felt for her.
posted by patheral at 12:44 PM on March 26, 2010

As a Portlander, I wanted to chime in to say : it's not you, it's Portland. Portland has an astonishing number of panhandlers, as well as a reputation as a place to go for good social services and a tolerant attitude.

I live in downtown Portland and get around mostly on foot, and there are days when I feel lucky if I can walk six blocks without being asked repeatedly for spare change. It's routine. When I'm wearing a business suit, I get asked about twice as often as I do when I'm wearing any other kind of clothing, but otherwise my appearance seems to make no difference.

I've never had to fend off a really aggressive panhandler, fortunately, but I've noticed that there are very few places or situations here that are truly considered off-limits for panhandling, and very few ways that actually work to keep people from approaching. I've been approached for change

* while eating in restaurants
* in classrooms on college campuses
* while wearing enormous headphones that completely covered my ears
* while I was obviously in pain, sobbing audibly with tears streaming down my face
* on the bus, streetcar, and MAX light rail (one guy even shook me to wake me up so he could ask me for change after I drifted off momentarily!)
* in the waiting room at a doctor's office
* in elevators
* at indoor concerts, conferences and performances that required paid admission
* on the grounds of The Grotto

So, yeah...I don't think you are attracting this. I'd say you're encountering it not so much because you appear to be a good prospect, but simply because you live in Portland.
posted by velvet winter at 1:22 PM on March 26, 2010

There seems to be an assumption in this question and in many of the answers that panhandler = homeless or otherwise needy. Often this is not true, there are many people who simply beg for a living because they get a good hourly rate from it and they don't have to deal with a boss or a schedule. They have apartments, cars, plenty of food, etc. They hone their techniques and strategies over the years, figuring out where to go and what to do to extract the most possible money out of passerby. Since the professionals put in more effort more consistently over a longer period of time, they receive a disproportionate amount of the money given to beggars.

So, the right mentality is not that you're turning away a needy person, but that you're rejecting an aggressive sales pitch. Keeping that in mind may help you be more assertive in these situations. If you're comfortable hanging up on a telemarketer, you should be comfortable walking past a beggar without acknowledging him.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:13 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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