Street beggars have moved to the top of Detroit’s public spaces agenda with City Council’s passage of a panhandling ordinance. Although I’m not convinced that fines and jail time for the most obnoxious and aggressive offenders is a bright idea, it’s time donors to this highly visible subculture realize that giving them money only contributes to the problem.
The conduct of beggars reminds me of a situation I experienced some years ago when I visited theKruegerNational Park, a game reserve inSouth Africa.
The tour bus parked across from a watering hole where a variety of animals — lions, elephants, giraffes, etc. came to drink. I observed a sign which read: Please don’t feed the animals. I asked why it was posted and received what I believed to be a logical response.
These animals, said the guide, were in their natural habitat. If tourists fed them, they would stop foraging for themselves and wait for the next tour bus to get their food, even become aggressive if their expectations weren’t met.
It is not my intent to compareDetroitpanhandlers to animals inAfrica. But the same psychological analogy reserve officials applied to wildlife may also apply to human behavior.
When people give them money, beggars won’t take advantage of the established social service programs that cater to their needs. They also aren’t likely to seek legitimate work and are encouraged to continue their conspicuous dysfunction by preying on sympathetic passersby.
To keep public sentiment from turning from disdain to pity requires an honest look at who comprise this social group and what may be their motivation.
A trek through the downtown area morning, noon or night you’ll encounter an interesting array of characters with a sob story and outstretched hands.
To illustrate one of the more aggressive personalities, I was walking with a buddy and encountered a young, neatly dressed black man asking for a couple of dollars to catch a bus. We declined. The young man suggested that it would be our fault if someone “got hit in the head.” This happened on two separate occasions involving the same person, which raised concern about how far this guy would actually go.
In another incident, a young, white man approached me with a story that his car had run out of gas on the expressway with his wife and two kids inside. He needed $5. A couple of weeks later, and a few miles away at a supermarket parking lot, I ran into the same man with the same story about his stranded family.
Every morning aroundWoodward Ave.andCongress St.is an unkempt and unshaven guy asking for money to buy food. I ignore him. But other people routinely hand out cash. There’s a rumor that he has a college degree in psychology.
This summer, a young girl of maybe 10 years of age, came on the scene with compelling spiel. “Hello, my name is ……. and I am a young entrepreneur,” began her carefully choreographed, articulate introduction. In her hands were tiny candles she claimed to have made to sell for an $8 “contribution.”
I suspect one of her parents was nearby, although never apparent. But they had to know there is no way anyone would give this possibly exploited child $8 for what she was selling. Instead, they would reach in their pocket and just give the cute kid with loads of moxy a couple of dollars, as I did. She was back the next day.
Some panhandlers, of course, are scam artists, or products of the drug culture that have been exiled from friends, family or detox centers. Others are shiftless misfits whose “job” is to take advantage of our charity.
Such behavior make some of us wonder if they are more deserving of our contempt than our generosity.