I would say that I’ve lived two different lives. Even though I’m still only 26 years of age, my life can be split into two distinctly different parts. There’s my pre-Miami days and my post-Miami days and it’s difficult to argue which one I’ve enjoyed more. Before moving to Miami for college, I lived in Sussex County, NJ a town which was known more for it’s farmland and the annual Farm & Horse show than anything else. The atmosphere, as you can imagine, is 180 degrees different than that of Miami.
Up north, as a child, I rarely experienced diversity. In my high school graduating class of 178 students, I believe 175 could be classified as “white”. The community up there was extremely tight, were everyone knew everyone and anytime someone new moved into the neighborhood, the gossip started about who they were and where they came from. Things are different up there … people are different.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think I really understood people could be anything other than white until I was around nine or ten years old, visiting Atlantic City with my family. It was on this trip that I not only experienced diversity, but I also experienced different social classes. I couldn’t understand why strangers were asking my parents for money and why people were dropping money in the guitar case of a guy who proclaimed himself a “one man band”. Didn’t these people have family and places to be other than standing in the cold asking for money?
As I grew older, I understood the world to be a different place than what I knew in northern New Jersey. In part at least, that’s why I chose to go to school in South Florida. I went from 0% diversity to 100% diversity and I experienced a lot more of the “Atlantic City” type of life in Miami. People here come in all shapes, sizes, colors and classes and I can’t remember the last time I traveled from point A to point B without seeing someone in need of help or asking for help. I couldn’t argue that Miami is better than Susses or vice versa, simply that they are totally different.
Having lived down here for 8+ years now, I’ve become accustomed to people asking me for help. Generally, while driving and stopped at a red light, a panhandler will approach the window with a sign, stay there for a few seconds and if I don’t roll down the window, they move on to the next car. I’m not someone who carries cash so the opportunity for me to give something really never presents itself, but even if it did, I’m not so sure I would give anything. Before you think of me as an awful guy, allow me to explain my reasoning.
Again, I draw from life experience but while in college, a friend of a friend use to panhandle during free time, for no other reason that to make extra money. The kid was earning a degree, came from a wealthy family and refused to get a job. So, he would dress up in nice clothes and head down to the Miami Metro-rail, specifically the stop at Government Station. This stop was the most populated and during the busy hours and a rail would come every 10-15 minutes. Before each rail came, he would go around asking people for enough money to get on the train, as he forgot his wallet. The kid looked sharp in a nice polo and khakis, not like your normal panhandler and on an average day, would collect around $150 from people looking to help him out.
His research (I kid you not, there was research) showed that people were more willing to help someone who looked clean-cut and dressed well, than someone who actually looked like they needed the money. The story that worked the best was where he simply needed enough money to get back to the University of Miami, which at the time was $1.25. “Research” also showed that he could not panhandle in the same spot more than once a month as most commuters would wait for the rail at the same spot each day.
While this was all explained to me, my mind couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Was this kid a genius for exploiting panhandling, something which some would argue Americans are foolish for giving to in the first place, or was he so vile and disgusting that I couldn’t believe I was even entertaining his story? Without a doubt, the stunt he pulled is morally reprehensible but this taught me a good lesson about giving to panhandlers. No cash. If this kid needed a ticket, I would offer to buy him a ticket myself.
Fast forward a few years when I took my first job out of college managing a Boston Market and I encountered my first panhandler “regular”. I would close the store most nights and when things wrapped up around midnight, I’d pull out of the store and get stuck at the red light before getting on the expressway. Joe, as I later learned his name, always came up to my car asking for spare change. At least to start our relationship, I wouldn’t even acknowledge he was there. As time passed, I began to feel worse about myself and decided to make a plate of food for him before I closed the store every night. My store, (third best in Florida by the way after I took over!) always had a small amount of food left over and even though store policy was to throw it away, I only threw most of it away. This meal wasn’t old or bad in any way, simply not purchased that night.
Perhaps it was an unethical thing to do, only to serve an ethical purpose (if that makes sense) but I felt good about my decision. I understand that this is only enabling Joe to depend on me for food each night rather than getting it on his own through work or other means but I made a judgment call. Now, if anyone asks me for change or money while I’m on the street, I always offer to buy food instead. Even though my philosophy is that panhandling is lazy and that people would be better served by looking for a job or developing a skill, I understand that can be difficult in their position and if I’m in a position to help, I probably should.
Panhandling is a very uncomfortable topic and when someone walks up to you asking for money, it’s even more uncomfortable. I’m all for giving to charity in an organized fashion, but with my own personal experience, it’s difficult to tell if the person asking for money is genuinely interested in help. Rather than pretend they don’t exist, which was wrong of me, I simply say something along the lines of “No sir, have a nice day” or offer something other than money. Right or wrong, this is me.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject, bringing personal experience or simply thoughts on how you approach this subject. Comments are always welcomed below.
Published or updated May 4, 2011.