Pan handeling and homelessness affects on youth and our communities
July 27, 2010 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Sociology and Homeless Filter: Looking for research on how a cities policies on pan handeling and homelessness affect youth culture, but also some general thoughts on wether or not pan handeling should be allowed from a perspective of love and support.

I've been thinking through the issues in our community, and I'm wanting to know how they are affecting our youth. We have an increasing number of youth who follow this transient life style.

To be up front, I'm looking for information that might be used to make a case against pan handeling and allowing homeless/transient people to flood our cities street corners.

This doesn't come from a disgust with our fellow citizens, but rather from a perspective of love. I don't think that tossing some change to people is a good way of meeting their needs. I'd much rather see some community programs receive funding to provide help and support to those who need it, and to those who seek it.

For those who chose this lifestyle and don't want help, or those who are faking for money, or those who are just funding their "traveling" phase (and in my experience a drug and/or alcohol phase as well, but not always), I'd argue that they are having a negative affect on our community, and there pan handeling shouldn't be allowed.

So, I'm curious about research on how this issue is affecting youth, but also on how it affecting communities, and those who stay in this lifestyle.

I'm still processing this idea, and by no means claim to know it all or have the answers... I'm just trying to gain information as I want to help. So lend me your hivemind thoughts
posted by peripatew to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There's something so direct about walking up to a person and asking them for money. Charities sanitize the problem. Write them a check and they'll be take care of those dirty smelly weird people, and you won't have to smell them. But if you engaged panhandlers in conversation you might discover that they are each unique humans just like the rest of us.

I wonder if there has always been, throughout human history, a small percentage of the population that, for any number of reasons, cannot make a living.

I panhandled brazenly on the streets of NY and SF in my youth. I never used the money to buy intoxicating substances, did use it for rent, food. I was politically active and volunteered full-time at a parent-run school.

I met a lot of interesting people while panhandling (and hitchhiking, which could be considered another form of begging).

Instead of handing out coins consider handing out peanut butter sandwiches. I'm serious. A jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread cost a few bucks and provide decent nourishment for several people without refrigeration. Find or found a local chapter of Food not Bombs.
posted by mareli at 10:05 AM on July 27, 2010

Check out geographer Sue Ruddick's work in Los Angeles. The way you've framed your question makes me more than a little disgusted and at first I really didn't want to help you out, but I hope that in doing this research you'll learn more about the structures that further poverty and homelessness and prevent access to community programs and services. Also, try directly asking some homeless youth what they need.

Revanchist violent crusade hurf durf.
posted by avocet at 10:10 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the disgust that avocet talks about may come from the assumption in your question that because a) giving money to panhandlers is a bad way to combat homelessness, therefore b) banning panhandling is a good way to divert money into better and more efficient anti-homelessness initiatives. This doesn't follow!

Also, the concept of "fake panhandling" is vastly more complex than you seem to realize; the criteria for "fakeness" versus "real need" are subjective. (Some would even argue that anybody who is prepared to beg for money on the streets must by definition need the money they are demanding.) In short it would be good to clarify your exact goals. Research to help you get money channelled to good homelessness orgs in your area? Or to help you sweep panhandlers off the streets? You'll likely get more help with the former than the latter here...
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:17 AM on July 27, 2010


Forgive me for not explaining myself well. I do engage the homeless in our community. I volunteer at our local homeless youth shelter, I've just returned from a week long trip of working on San Fran, Oakland and Richmond working directly with and having conversations with the homeless.

I've seen the effectiveness of programs for homelessness, and I want to see them thrive and grow.

The beginning of my thought process for this post was out of a response of people just tossing change at others. To me it seems that this is often not genuine love, and its definitely not long-term sustainable help. I want to see people helped, and I was curious if community engagement of the homeless would be more effective to them and our community that just sticking with what we've done for so long.
posted by peripatew at 10:20 AM on July 27, 2010

A panhandler asks for a charitable donation for the benefit of himself or herself. Is it a worthy charity? Usually not, I fear. The money is most often used for drugs and alcohol, or other items that they don't actually need to buy (once a panhandler actually told me that he needed money to buy a ticket to a particular concert that he wanted to attend). Some people genuinely need help, but as you say, the help they need is of a more organized sort, from a government agency designed to help people. They need better lives, not spare change. They need housing and education and jobs and medical care and psychological counseling. Ideally, governments should give them these things - although all of these things entail some cost, and money can be in short supply, and taxpayers already consider themselves to be overtaxed. So it's not easy.

We live in a free market type of system, in which anybody can ask anybody for nearly anything (contract killings are still illegal) and under any terms, and the person receiving such requests or offers is free to accept them or reject them. There are other unworthy charities, but the public gets to decide what is worthy and what isn't. There are lots of unworthy products, but the public gets to decide what to buy and what not to buy. You can say that panhandling has a negative effect on the community, but then, many people think that junk food, lottery tickets, high heeled shoes, and many other things have a negative effect on the community, but these products are allowed on the principle that if you don't like them, you don't have to buy them. Similarly, if you don't want to donate money to a panhandler or to anyone else asking for your money, you don't have to. Nancy Reagan advised us to just say no to drugs; we are also free to say no to panhandlers (and no is what I usually say).

Aggressive panhandling is another matter. A panhandler who won't take no for an answer is guilty of some form of harassment if not outright theft, and that is properly considered to be a crime. So in Toronto, where I live, panhandling is legal but aggressive panhandling is not. Panhandlers have to be polite. They can ask for money but they can't demand it, or they get in trouble with the police. This seems reasonable to me.

If you want to outlaw homelessness you had better be prepared to give people homes, and that costs money. And if homeless people get homes for free, why shouldn't everybody? It has been tried, although somewhat badly. In the USSR the government employed everybody and assigned housing to everybody. But the work was often non-productive and the housing was usually of bad quality, and in the end no one was satisfied and the system was overthrown. Could it have been done better? Certainly. Will that ever happen? Probably not. We live in a very imperfect world.
posted by grizzled at 10:22 AM on July 27, 2010

Since you mention a perspective of "love," I suggest looking at the Catholic social justice tradition. Google or a good librarian could help you find journals in this field.

Catholic social justice thinkers might not come to conclusions you agree with, but they might share your basic values.
posted by vincele at 10:26 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some people genuinely need help, but as you say, the help they need is of a more organized sort, from a government agency designed to help people. They need better lives, not spare change. They need housing and education and jobs and medical care and psychological counseling. Ideally, governments should give them these things - although all of these things entail some cost, and money can be in short supply, and taxpayers already consider themselves to be overtaxed. So it's not easy.

If I can make a suggestion to the OP: instead of making this a crusade against people who are homeless, your efforts will be much better received by the community you're trying to help if you turn your efforts to lobbying state and nongovernmental institutions for increased access to these services. That said, I know California is more than a little financially fucked at the moment.
posted by avocet at 10:29 AM on July 27, 2010

Of the homelessness research I've read (which is quite a bit), I can't recall any that study chronic homelessness as a lifestyle choice, most approach homelessness as it is most widely understood by professionals in the field as a mental health and housing problem. Addtionally, I think love is not the kind of variable you're going to find researchers measuring, so it's probably going to be hard to find studies about it. Though, you will always hear homeless advocates touting evidence based practice methods like housing first that bundles community mental health resources with permanent housing as the most compassionate as well as cost effective method of lowering street homeless populations.

Newspaper stories on homelessness often focus on the perspectives from advocates within the city business districts who feel panhandling is bad for tourism. The business district advocates at least in Philly have attempted to pressure the city into forcing the chronically homeless off the Parkway (a broad, open stretch of museums known to be a congregating place for the homeless) and into lower income neighborhoods like North Philly. This would be accomplished by cracking down on the faith groups that have established spots on the Parkway where the homeless know they can go to get meals. The problem is that a lot of the community mental health services, free clinics and shelter beds that the homeless also typically fall back on are also in the same general area, so forcing them to migrate to North Philly would actually disconnect them from the few supports they regularly utilize.

Regardless, if you want the anti-panhandling perspective you can usually get it in newspapers, where reporters with no background in social service provision uncritically receive it from the business district advocacty community and publish it as if it has some weight in the professional community that serves the population, which it doesn't.

Does this help? I'm not sure I read your question right.
posted by The Straightener at 10:39 AM on July 27, 2010

@avocet. The last thing I want to do is crusade against them, rather for and with them, as well as our entire community.

Great comments, keep them coming!
posted by peripatew at 10:40 AM on July 27, 2010

My thought as a lifelong Bay Area resident and long-time San Francisco resident is that I no longer hand money out on the streets. Homeless, Greenpeace clippies (clipboard hippies), political campaigns...all of them are wasting their time asking me for money. I give at the office now because people have chosen to abuse public space as a source of financing. It's a tragedy of the commons.

I'd be curious to know the results of your investigation, though, particularly about how homelessness and panhandling affect youth culture in a positive way.
posted by rhizome at 10:42 AM on July 27, 2010

@The Straightener - Great info. My question was confusing as I'm thinking through two parts of the issue. Specifically I was asking for research that might show a negative (or positive) affect on youth by allowing pan handeling (I've never seen it so much before in one community). But I'm also thinking through how to best help the homeless.

While me question about the affects on youth might seem like I'm coming from a negative perspective, I'm not. Just trying to think through the issue the best I can.
posted by peripatew at 10:45 AM on July 27, 2010

I wonder if there has always been, throughout human history, a small percentage of the population that, for any number of reasons, cannot make a living.

On the contrary: there has always been, throughout human history, a large percentage of the population that, for some fairly obvious reasons, could not make a living.

But The Straightener, if he'll forgive my saying so, is completely on point in saying that homeless is at least as much a mental health and housing issue as it is anything else. The homeless population disproportionately suffers from mental illness, especially those mental illnesses which make it difficult or impossible to live an independent life. The large mental hospitals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are mostly gone due to the process of deinstitutionalization.

Granted, there was a lot of abuse in those places, but in the process of correcting that by shutting down the hospitals, there was no actual solution for where the patients would go. A large number of people you see on the street today would have been patients in a mental hospital a hundred years ago.*

Something else: a significant number of panhandlers may not actually be homeless. In the town where I went to law school there were about two or three dozen panhandlers who regularly roamed downtown, the vast majority of which were actually connected with social services and had apartments. They were on disability and everything. But most of them were 1) unemployed, 2) mentally a bit off, and 3) bored out of their skulls. They had taken to wandering around downtown asking people for money for sheer lack of anything better to do.

*Or just dead. Our society really sucks at taking care of these people, but as far as I understand it, we're doing a lot better than we were a century or two ago. Not that that's saying all that much.
posted by valkyryn at 10:54 AM on July 27, 2010

A good place to start for serious homelessness research is Pathways to Housing's Research Library. You could also try a more general study on youth homelessness that will give you a better general idea about the problems this specific population faces. Also, you can take a look at some of the anti-homelessness initiatives that cities like Orlando have enacted, which were geared towards sending a message that Orlando isn't a "homeless destination city" where other cities like NYC can pack their homeless off to. The Orlando Sentinel page on homelessness is full of these stories; also, the same type of anti-feeding stories we get here in Philly. However, Orlando's policies aimed at not becoming a magnet for transients are not what most people would consider loving.
posted by The Straightener at 10:57 AM on July 27, 2010

OP, just be mindful about the language you use. Though the youth you're working with are probably not reading your AskMe questions, if I was in that scenario and read this

To be up front, I'm looking for information that might be used to make a case against pan handeling and allowing homeless/transient people to flood our cities street corners.

I'd interpret it as an attack against myself and my community. At a base level, what makes one person's presence and actions on a street corner more acceptable than someone else's? Your original post employed the language of criminalization and policing in a way that inferred that a group of people occupying a particular space was a nuisance to be dealt with. Would you like someone to treat you like that, even if it was only in words?

That said, thanks for clarifying what else you've been up to, but I hope this explains why I responded the way I did.
posted by avocet at 11:09 AM on July 27, 2010

Another thing you may want to consider is how anti-panhandling laws are enforced - mostly, they are not. In San Francisco, for instance, it's technically illegal to panhandle while on a median strip, and yet there are always panhandlers on median strips. If there's a law against it, but the law is never or rarely enforced, then what good is it? And how do these laws help if they are enforced?

Homeless guy panhandles on median strip; gets arrested; gets papered out with future court date and/or fine; doesn't show up for court or pay; gets bench warrant issued; gets arrested; spends some time in county jail; gets released. May or may not get hooked up with social services. Rinse. Repeat.
posted by rtha at 11:14 AM on July 27, 2010

Reading some of the literature on youth homelessness may also help you challenge some of your own preconceptions of who these kids are. Yes, there is bound to be a handful of crustpunk homeless-by-choice kids from well-to-do families in the mix, but the research paints a very different overall picture, which isn't very pretty, nor privileged:

Regardless of their pathways into homelessness, homeless youth share many background characteristics and experience many of the same psychosocial problems (MacLean, Embry, & Cauce, 1999). For example, they tend to come from low-income communities (McCaskill, Toro, & Wolfe, 1998) and their families are disproportionately poor or working class (Whitbeck et al., 1997). It is also not uncommon for homeless youth to report a history of family disruption. Many grew up in single-parent households or “blended” (i.e., stepparent) families (Boesky, Toro, & Wright, 1995; Greenblatt & Robertson, 1993), and a significant number of these youth have not had any contact with their non-custodial parent (Greenblatt & Robertson, 1993). The families of homeless youth also seem to have experienced far more residential moves than those of their housed peers (Cauce et al., 2000; Toro & Goldstein, 2000). In other words, their homelessness seems to be part of a longer pattern of residential instability.

Homeless youth often have a history of academic and school behavior problems. Between 25 and 35 percent of homeless youth report that they had to repeat a grade (Clark & Robertson, 1996; Robertson, 1989; Upshur, 1986; Younget al., 1983), and many have been suspended or expelled (Toro & Goldstein, 2000). Drop-out rates are also high (Thompson, Kost, & Pollio, 2003). Research suggests that at least some of these academic and school behavior problems may be attributable to attention deficit disorder (Cauce et al., 2000) or learning disabilities (Barwick & Siegel, 1996), which may be why homeless youth often report being placed in special education or remedial classes (Clark & Robertson, 1996; Robertson, 1989). Regardless of their cause, these academic and school behavior problems can be a source of family conflict and hence contribute to homelessness.

Youth consistently identify conflict with their parents as the primary reason for their homelessness (Whitbeck et al., 2002; Robertson & Toro, 1999), and they tend to report more family conflict than their peers who are housed (Toro & Goldstein, 2000; Wolfe, Toro, & McCaskill, 1999). These conflictst end to reflect longstanding patterns rather than problems that arise just before youth leave home (Smollar, 1999). Conflicts related to step-parent relationships, sexual activity, pregnancy, sexual orientation, school problems, and alcohol or drug use seem to be the most common (Owen et al., 1998; Robertson & Toro, 1999; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999).

In addition to family conflict, many homeless youth have experienced child abuse and/or neglect (Boesky, Toro, & Wright, 1995; Molnar et al., 1998; Powers, Eckenrode, & Jacklitsh, 1990; Robertson, 1989; Rotherman-Boruset al., 1996; Rothman & David, 1985; Ryan et al., 2000; Tyler et al.,2001; Unger et al., 1998; Yates et al., 1988). In fact, homeless youth often cite physical or sexual abuse as their reason for leaving home (Robertson, 1989). Although the percentage of homeless youth who report a history of maltreatment varies widely across studies, research using comparison groups has found that homeless youth are more likely to have been abused and/or neglected than their peers who are housed (Wolfe, Toro, & McCaskill,1999). This may also explain why homeless youth are more likely to have been verbally and physically aggressive toward their parents compared to their housed peers (Toro & Goldstein, 2000). That is, their aggression may be in response to parental aggression directed at them (Haber & Toro, 2003).

Homeless youth seem to be at elevated risk for a variety of mental health problems, including mood disorders, suicide attempts, and post traumatic stress disorder (Cauce et al., 2000; Clark & Robertson, 1996; Feitel et al., 1992; Fronczak & Toro, 2003; Greenblatt & Robertson, 1993; McCaskill, Toro, & Wolfe, 1998; Powers, Eckenrode, & Jaklitsch, 1990; Rew, Thomas, Horner, Resnick, & Beuhring, 2001; Rotheram-Borus, 1993; Robertson, 1989; Stewart et al., 2004; Toro & Goldstein, 2000, Yates et al., 1988). The risk of mental health problems may be particularly high among street youth, who tend to have experienced more stressful events and to exhibit more psychological symptoms than homeless youth who have not spent time on the streets (Robertson & Toro, 1999; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999).

A number of studies have found not only that many homeless youth are sexually active, but also that they engage in sexual behaviors that put them at high risk for both sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy (Cauce et al., 1994; Kipke et al., 1995; Lombardo & Toro, 2004; Rotheram-Borus, 1991; Rotheram-Borus et al., 1992a, 1992b; Staller & Kirk, 1997; Toro & Goldstein, 2000; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999).

Homeless youth also report engaging in delinquent or illegal activities, including stealing, forcibly entering a residence, prostitution, and dealing drugs (Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Ackley, 1997). Youth who engage in these “deviant” behaviors often report that they do so to obtain money, food or shelter (Van Leeuwen, 2002; Van Leeuwen et al., 2005). In other words, these behaviors may be part of a survival strategy (Robertson & Toro, 1999).
posted by The Straightener at 11:24 AM on July 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

I grew up in a country where the social safety net ensued that everyone could afford a roof over their head if they wanted one. This resulted in vast and wonderful benefits and freedoms percolating through all layers of society, that I sorely miss here in the USA, but the one most pertinent to your question was that everyone knew that anyone asking them for money had sufficient means and income, so begging was sort of a non-starter.
There was no need for any kind of law because everyone knew a beggar didn't need a handout. Instead, busking emerged. You might be unlikely to give someone money just for asking when you know they don't need it, but you might give someone money for street performance. The youths who wished for a transient lifestyle might so through arts and performance, rather than begging.
Or they might just not bother anyone at all, because they have enough money for a rough lifestyle.

So yeah, I agree that community/state/national programs to remove the need for begging are the way to go. But I'm deeply uneasy at the idea of cracking down on begging before those programs are in place, and before they can genuinely meet the needs of all, rather than be a bandaid that people can point to as an excuse to not give a fuck about others in the community.

Once you've solved the homelessness, then you also get to enjoy your parks and beaches at night, people's social mobility increases as they take risks rather than stay in dead-end jobs for fear of ending up on the street if they follow their dreams, stress and disability lowers, because people don't stay in jobs that are killing them, and countless other goodness that just diffuses through society. I love it.
(We grumbled and complained about our taxes paying the rent of freeloaders, but that was before I travelled and saw what happens to societies which just leave people to live on the street. That's a thousand times worse!)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:19 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love reading any thread where The Straightener can rock his/her mad knowledge on homelessness/poverty issues. I have a ton of respect for you!

vincele, I work in the Catholic social justice world and am intrigued by your comment. I think there's a difference between the charitable act of giving money to someone who is panhandling and working elsewhere for justice and equitable distribution of resources for people experiencing poverty and crisis. I don't know that the Church's tradition would consider denying someone panhandling unjust, but it certainly would consider it uncharitable.

Peripatew, if you're interested in following the Catholic social teaching angle on this, I'd be more than happy to help you. MeMail me!

From an on-the-ground perspective, I seem to remember that St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis, Minnesota have advocated on behalf of anti-panhandling ordinances before, from the perspective that money given to panhandlers incentivizes them to not seek assistance from one of the programs in the community that can help them transition out of homelessness.

It's like when a kindhearted church group goes down to the camps by the Mississippi River to hand out sandwiches and bottled water, and it keeps people from coming into the soup kitchen, where a social worker can catch up with them.

That being said, I'm really conflicted about my daily interactions with people who are panhandling. My old Archbishop always, always pulled out money. My social worker friends are split on the issue, and I feel guilty no matter which choice I make - either I feel bad that I've kept someone from looking for help with a professional who can help them or I feel bad that I'm keeping someone that much further from a meal or a place to sleep.
posted by elmer benson at 1:41 PM on July 27, 2010

elmer benson: Oh, all I meant was that Catholic social justice teaching is interesting stuff and its work on homelessness might be worth reading about. The Catholic social justice tradition is not the first thing people think of-- I didn't know about it until recently and I was raised Catholic!

Also, I thought it might be of special interest to the OP since I sensed, rightly or wrongly, they were coming from a Christian background.
posted by vincele at 6:17 PM on July 27, 2010

I feel you, vincele. Sorry I got immediately defensive! You're right- it's a really interesting angle on the issue!
posted by elmer benson at 9:00 AM on July 28, 2010

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