Every year, I take out $100 in $5 bills and distribute the cash to panhandlers during the holiday season as a gesture of good will. I have a few rules. I start the giveaway the day after Thanksgiving and finish by New Years Day. And I give only to people actually asking for money, either verbally or with a sign. I’ve never, ever had a problem giving away 20 $5 bills to different people down on their luck during the holidays every year.
Full disclosure: I tend to give my “spare change” to panhandlers all the time. Also, my wife and I give regularly to charity through more institutional channels. I started this holiday practice when I had the money to spare, inspired by having been down-and-out, homeless, and pennyless for a period in my own life. Yeah, yeah, there’s the argument posted by many a municipality that giving money to panhandlers only perpetuates the problem, that the money I give only goes toward alcohol and drugs, and that I need to be giving to charity instead. Having experienced the good cheer and sliver of hope when somebody surprised me with a gift of cash when I was homeless, and having realized how much time and effort it took to get out of a similarly bad situation in my life, I never begrudge a bit of cash to the less fortunate, even if that money goes toward self-medicating or feeding an addiction. Americans tend to be so fucking puritanical and moralistic, always willing to look down on the foibles or sins or bad habits of others. Plus, in my experience, those who demand that I forego giving to panhandlers and donate to charity instead are often singularly lacking in personal charity and the impulse to give to formal charity.
I was startled when I first came upon panhandling in Paris. The nature of the begging in the City of Light is, in itself, a kind of theater, a performance of misery and supplication so overt that it is meant to be visually overwhelming. And yet, most everybody in Paris does exactly what most everybody in American cities does when confronted by such begging, they walk right on by.
What really pisses me off is that all the anti-panhandling talk frequently comes from conservative Republican types who have nothing bad to say when the panhandler in question is a US corporation coming hat in hand looking for a bailout from the federal government to cover its losses due to shit business practices or an economic downturn. And that’s on top of the economic subsidies (read charity) that governments give to business as part and parcel of what’s laughably called the free market. As a taxpayer, I have absolutely no say in this type of charitable giving to corporations or giving to corporate panhandlers. Yet I have to listen to oh-so-entitled corporate owners, their representatives, shills and hacks, berate me for giving my spare change to the begging poor. The fucking nerve!