The panhandling dilemma

One of my friends and Facebook page Likes asked me to write a post about the etiquette of dealing with panhandlers. The issue of panhandling is more of an ethical and moral topic, but there is an element of etiquette to it.

What’s so challenging about panhandling for most people is wondering what the panhandler will use the money for. For many folks, the thought of giving someone money to buy drugs or booze keeps them from giving. I’ve also heard there are professional panhandlers that are not homeless or sick or whatever they say on their sign. This is why I hesitate to give money.

A friend of mine shared that her husband gives to panhandlers knowing they may be using the money to buy alcohol or drugs, but he feels it’s none of his business. He believes if they need money, they need money and he has no right to tell them how to use the money he gives them.

Others might argue that by giving money you are helping the panhandler to continue to abuse drugs and alcohol and are keeping him or her dependent on donations.

The other aspect of panhandling that bothers people is often there are so many panhandlers that it’s hard to know who to give to. You might wonder if you give to one, should you give to them all? Are some more worthy or needy than others? What about people who sell Real Change; are they more legitimate than other panhandlers?

I haven’t figured this out. I usually don’t give to panhandlers, but I will buy Real Change from a valid vendor. I like the idea of a commerce exchange, and the dignity and business sense the vendors get from selling the papers. I don’t usually read the paper. But, when I have, I have been impressed by some of the articles.

However, here’s where the etiquette and, I suppose, morality of the issue comes in. It can be maddening to be panhandled, and it can be maddening not knowing what the money is being used for. When a person is surly or not of sound mind it can be hard to be compassionate. But, what I know is etiquette is about making others comfortable and treating them with respect. No matter how flawed, we are all humans. We all are doing the best we can and deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect.

Keeping that in mind, even if I don’t give to a panhandler, I try to smile or at least acknowledge him or her. If I’m spoken to I usually respond kindly, but I don’t stick around for a conversation unless I’m purchasing a Real Change paper. If someone is rude to me, I ignore him or her. I don’t respond with rudeness even though it can be hard sometimes to hold my tongue.

That said, I’m not perfect, I’m often afraid if I give eye contact to the guy standing on the street corner facing traffic he or she will approach my car hoping for a donation. But, for the most part, I try to treat each panhandler with respect, whether I’m giving money or not. And, if you can at least do that, I think you are doing well. The rest is up to you.

For another pespective on panhandling, read this post by the Downtown Seattle Association.

How do you handle panhandlers? Do you give money to them? Why or why not?


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Carole on October 4, 2012 at 11:52 am

    For me, it’s generally a matter of safety. It’s not very safe for a diminutive person to present the location of their money (in a pocket or purse) while on the street. Travel books warn about this; a panhandler might be part of a group who will then stalk/attack/pickpocket you once they know where you keep your valuables. There is a disabled person in our neighborhood who regularly panhandles, and who I give to on occasion. As a community member in need, he is someone we all need to help care of–along the lines of “it takes a village”. In this case, if I have it to give, I do.

  2. ArdenClise on October 4, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Carole, very true about not showing the location of your money in other countries. I think that’s less of an issue in the U.S., but you’re probably smart to be cautious. I think it’s wonderful your neighborhood has come together to support the disabled person. That’s lovely.
    Thank you for commenting.

  3. Jodi Blackwood on October 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Hi Arden,
    Very nicely said … and very honest! It can be a difficult matter to wrestle with, emotionally. When we lived in Seattle, I remember the news story of one panhandler who had been arrested; he had been on the same street corner in the downtown area for over a year. He was defended, at no cost, by an attorney who was used to seeing him every day, and if I recall correctly, area businesses came together to pay his bail. I also remember that this man made in excess of $45,0000 / year by panhandling, more than he would make if he was employed! We have seen over the past few years how it has become something of a racket … a group will meet in a parking lot, take a sign and head out for a nearby street corner. Later on in the day they can be seen coming in, changing people, changing signs, and heading out again. I’m afraid it has hardened us to the situation.
    Having said that, we do direct our money towards shelters where food and items are provided to those who are in need — at least we know where it is going, and when asked, feel much less “guilty” about saying no.

  4. Arden on November 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Hi Jodi,

    So nice to have your thoughts. Yes, sadly it does seem to be a racket for some people. I think that’s why it’s so hard for many people to know if they should give or not. No one wants to feel taken advantage of.

    There is a man who panhandles near a store I frequent and he is blind, or at least acts blind, but to be honest, I find myself wondering if he really is. And then I chastise myself for questioning that he is truly blind.

    Argh, it’s a difficult dilemma. I guess I just come back to being kind and respectful whether you give or not.

  5. Homer J Simpson on November 22, 2022 at 9:39 pm

    Is it considered rude to beg inside a business in this case a Gas Station mini-mart versus outside of / in front of? No weather issues such as cold, heat, humidity or rain.

  6. Arden on November 22, 2022 at 11:12 pm

    Yes, that would be rude and intrusive. I’m sure many store owners would not allow it.

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