More Than Just “Pests” – Panhandlers Are People Too

I’ve heard a few people describe panhandlers as pests — they’re annoying, they smell, and they ask for cash that you don’t actually have, these people say — but there’s more going on than just a scruffy guy asking for spare change.

As a student getting her master’s degree in social work, Lindsay Pankok has seen first-hand some of the factors that lead people to beg on subways. She has yet to earn her license, but she’s already begun meeting with clients through her internships. Although none of them have explicitly told her that they’ve panhandled, many of them are low-income individuals. This experience gives her a unique perspective when a person gets on the train and asks for some help.

So I know a lot of people talk about panhandlers as pests and I kind of wanted to get your opinion on that. Does that bug you when you’re on the subway?

It is kind of annoying ‘cause I think when – in New York, our commute, I don’t know – whenever people outside of New York say that people on the trains are really antisocial, I liken it to when you’re in your car: “Do you want to talk to someone?” No, that’s kind of your alone time so when people are on the train, it’s sort of your alone time – you’re reading, or listening to music, or whatever. So it is kind of annoying to have someone come up to you. And I always – ‘cause I’m like, such a bleeding heart for everything I always get really sad when I see that. So it’s like a combination of annoying and sad.

I guess from your work experience, you kind of understand how people get into those situations, so how does that experience play into how you perceive people asking for money or donations of any sort?

Well I definitely think about it in terms of the systems that are working against this person. People don’t just wake up one day and decide “I think it’s a good idea to start panhandling.” So I think about – well a lot of people would say “Why don’t they just get a job?” and I think about the things that are working against someone in that situation to go get a job. If you don’t have professional clothing, you can’t go a job interview. If you don’t have access to a computer, you can’t type a resume. If you don’t have a high school education, no one’s going to look twice at you, especially in this economy. So I guess I really look at it sort of sociologically, about what are the things that have put this person in this situation where they have to panhandle.

So has your experience affected the way you at least perceive these people or the way you act towards them?

Definitely. I’m still not giving money to everyone who asks, because I don’t have the means to do that – I do every once in a while – but I don’t know. That’s sort of making me second-guess myself, because while I do think of them differently – I don’t think of it as “Oh, this lazy bum can’t get a job” – I think about why they’re in this situation. I guess it doesn’t entirely affect me, because I still ignore them, just like anyone else. So I guess it doesn’t really affect the way that I behave; it affects my thoughts, but not really my behavior.

And it is mostly because of cost?

Because of cost and I also think that if the person is making enough money to live by panhandling, they’re just probably going to keep doing that and never get out of the situation, whereas I know there are social services out there, there are people working with the homeless and trying to provide services to this population, but they’re never going to really go to those services if they’re making enough money panhandling.

But then again, is that really a bad thing? If it’s working for them – I can see how there are benefits in both ends, because for the person who’s getting the money, they have money, and then I feel that people sort of feel good about themselves when they do give the money, so it sort serves a social purpose, I think.

So you have all this insight because of the work you’ve done. How do you feel about the way people react to panhandlers, knowing what you know?

I think that most people that I’ve seen just ignore them. I haven’t seen very many people go out of their way to be mean or rude. I think people are sort of used to them as part of the New York culture. So I mean, I don’t blame people for ignoring them sometimes, or most of the time because that’s just sort of a part of New York, that’s what we do.

Have people have ever said to you “Oh these bums,” you know, and they said something about how they perceive them and then you found it objectionable?

Well my family is – well not just my family but I think anyone who comes from a more individualistic, conservative point of view where they think that someone should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps – I’ve heard comments like that. You know, “Why don’t they just go get a job? I’ve been working all day and they’re just out here asking for my hard-earned money.” So I have heard comments like that, where people just assume that every individual should be able to pull themselves up. It’s not always the case.

You said there are reasons why people can’t go out and make their own living any other way. What are some factors that contribute to that?

There’s a lot. I think a big contributor to it is the fact that poverty tends to perpetuate itself. So if someone grew up in poverty and wasn’t really expected to finish school or to get a job, you sort of – some people defy expectations, but most people live up to what’s expected of them – so if not much is expected of them, they tend not to reach farther. Of course, there are exceptions too, that but I think that’s more the norm.

And also, just the concrete obstacles of, like I mentioned before: if you don’t have a resume, if you have a high school education or a G.E.D., if you don’t have professional clothing, if you don’t know where to go to look for jobs. I mean, there are whole programs in colleges to teach college students how to look for jobs and it’s not an easy thing, so someone who’s never had that experience, [nor] had that training, doesn’t really know where to start.

If there’s anything that you would want people to know about people who might be panhandling, what’s one thing you would want most people to understand about them?

I would just want people to – it sounds cliché – but try to think of yourself in their shoes. Think of them as a human being. You wouldn’t think it was a life goal of theirs to grow up and be panhandling on the A train. But, think of what it must be like for them.

(NOTE: Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity, but other)

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