On an unusually cool July morning, Matt stood at the corner of an access road just off Interstate 35 in Minneapolis. I watched from across the street as driver after driver expertly performed what I call the panhandle dodge.
Avert eyes. Search for something in your back seat. Avoid pulling up all the way to the stoplight, or position your car so that you can’t see the 40ish guy in the hoodie holding a handwritten sign reading: “Dad and 7-year-old. We are really struggling. Please help us.”
I recognized each move because I’ve performed each move. I recognized the discomfort because I’ve felt it plenty. Once in a while, I lower my window and hand over a buck. I know. Woman of the Year.
Like those drivers, I’ve heard that people like Matt are just going to spend the money on alcohol and drugs, and that they’re allergic to work. But then I talk with Matt and am reminded that the best route to solving our huge and stubborn problems of hunger and homelessness is to fight assumptions.
So I have mixed feelings about a well-intentioned effort launched recently to help people like Matt get firmly on their feet and away from freeways, parks and malls.
In June, the Minneapolis Downtown Council, in collaboration with the Minneapolis Police Department, Hennepin County, St. Stephen’s Human Services and others, launched a campaign called Give Real Change.
The campaign, (giverealchange.org) included five billboards in downtown Minneapolis encouraging people to stop giving money directly to panhandlers and, instead, write a check to the nonprofit, which is dedicated to longer-term solutions.
“Panhandling is demeaning,” the literature says, “and as a community we can do better to help those in need.” Money raised will be used for housing subsidies, job training and mental-health programs. Overhead is to be kept to a minimum.
I applaud their desire to get to the root of the problem. A buck is no substitute for a job. But the campaign asks us to do something very hard, which is to walk away from the visceral needs of our fellow human beings in real time. Food, shoes, kindness, a drink on occasion — they’re all things we desire for ourselves.
And if we’re honest, we can’t say with certainty that we or a loved one will never be standing on that corner.
Research shows that most panhandlers are male, single and middle-aged. Many served in our military. Others are disabled, struggling with mental-health issues or alcoholism, or are victims of job loss during the recession. Few have high school educations or family ties, and are almost as likely to be a victim of crime as a perpetrator.
This is likely why Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, acknowledges some criticism of the campaign, which mixes an aspirational vision with fearmongering. The website welcomes visitors with advice on how to deal with “aggressive solicitation,” and suggests that, “If you feel threatened, seek a Minneapolis Police officer.”
There are aggressive solicitors out there. Sometimes, they try to sign us up for a credit card at the airport, or sell us a cruise at dinnertime, or get $5 out of us for charity as we stand in the pet store checkout line.
And occasionally they scare us on the street with their hand out. But that’s rare. Most panhandlers aren’t aggressive. They’re embarrassed. And hungry. They’re a lot like Matt.
“This is so belittling,” he told me. “I’d rather do anything else.” But he makes $30 or $40 a day, which pays the electric bill and covers some of his now-8-year-old daughter’s needs.
Matt’s wife left him when their daughter was 6 months old. He worked in computer support, making close to $100,000 in his 30s, until his position was outsourced to India. He returned to school, got certifications that were quickly outdated, and lived on savings. “Then the ex left and things became acute,” he said. He lives in an apartment in New Hope and his landlord lets him slide on the rent when he’s struggling.
He’s worked this corner for two years, supplementing the money he brings in with a cashier’s job at $7.75 an hour. Recently, a guy pulled up and asked him to do some yard work. He loves that, except when people have him do the work and then refuse to pay him, which has happened.
His parents are dead and, aside from a few buddies, he doesn’t have a support system. People yell at him to “get a job!” He hears doors lock.
“They never seem to have the ability to stop and talk to me,” Matt said. The other day, a guy gave him three boxes of granola bars. He loved that.
“A dollar, bananas, apples, quarters. Everything helps.”
Diane Steinhagen supports the give-it-now approach. “You know, if you need a meal, this [campaign] doesn’t help you,” said Steinhagen, a volunteer at Minneapolis’ Peace House, which offers support and kinship to marginalized men and women.
“People who are out there need money for immediate needs. All have a reason. Almost all have an issue that keeps them from full-time employment. One has mental health issues. A few guys are out of prison and no one will hire them. Who are we to judge?”
The Downtown Council’s Cramer appreciates the need-it-now sentiment. But while he distances himself from his campaign’s emphasis on the rare aggressive panhandler, he supports its objectives. “It’s a legitimate and understandable reaction, but not one that persuades me,” said Cramer, noting that the campaign has raised several thousand dollars so far.
“This whole idea is about encouraging people to be charitable, but redirecting that charitable impulse toward longer-term solutions,” he said. “It’s a complex situation.”
It’s now less complex for me. I’ll give change and granola bars now. And I’ll write that check for a long-term solution.
If you disagree, I’ll respect your choice, of course. What I hope none of us will do, though, is step on the gas. Because then the problem disappears only in the rearview mirror.
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum