The Panhandlers We Like

A few weeks ago Mr. Z and I spent a pleasant afternoon and evening listening to a half-dozen regional bands perform.  A silent auction was set up inside the concert venue, and raffle tickets were available for purchase. The bands donated their time and talent for this benefit concert, and all proceeds went to help pay the medical bills of a young woman with cancer.

And the other day, a friend’s Facebook post lead me to this article about a husband and wife both diagnosed with advanced cancer. They have a small child, and their friends are trying to raise money for their treatment and other expenses. At the link, you can see a beautiful photo of them with their kid, watch their wedding video, and find the blog that tells you more about them and how to make a donation.

I’m guessing benefit concerts and blogs advertised in articles in the NY Daily News get you more cash than a big plastic jug or a car wash.  So good for these folks.

But then I wondered:  What is it that makes these medical bill fundraisers any different from panhandlers on the street?

Everyone will tell you don't give money to the panhandlers - give to homeless shelters, or work to change the system, or to build affordable housing so people won't be homeless. Giving to individual homeless people just perpetuates the system, and they'll probably just buy booze and cigs anyway. So why should we give to individuals who need money for medical expenses? Isn't that just perpetuating the system of craptastic health care we have now? Shouldn't we work to change things and make health care affordable for everyone? Won't those sick people just use that money to buy substandard care that isn't really going to help them much anyway?

What’s the difference between panhandling for food and shelter, and panhandling for medical care?  Why do we have more sympathy for medical panhandlers?  Why do they seem more worthy to us, even admirable in their struggle?  Why do we blame the one, but not the other, for their plight?

Let's take a look at who's homeless.  According to the National Coalition for the Homeless,

In 2003, children under the age of 18 accounted for 39% of the homeless population; 42% of these children were under the age of five (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004). This same study found that unaccompanied minors comprised 5% of the urban homeless population. However, in other cities and especially in rural areas, the numbers of children experiencing homelessness are much higher...

The number of homeless families with children has increased significantly over the past decade.  Families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. In its 2007 survey of 23 American cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that families with children comprised 23% of the homeless population (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2007). These proportions are likely to be higher in rural areas.  Research indicates that families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless in rural areas (Vissing, 1996). All 21 cities with available data cited an increase in the number of persons requesting food assistance for the first-time. The increase was particularly notable among working families. (U.S. conference of mayors 2008)...

Research indicates that 40% of homeless men have served in the armed forces, as compared to 34% of the general adult population (Rosenheck et al., 1996).

Kids. Families. Vets.  White, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian.  Men and women.  About three-fourths of the homeless are not mentally ill, and over two-thirds do not have a substance abuse problem.  Those who are mentally ill or who have substance abuse issues need and deserve help, but I put it this way because the stereotypical view of a homeless person is a mentally ill, addicted single man, and the implicit or explicit judgment is that he got there on the streets through some fault of his own, and is not deserving of our help.  Unlike those poor deserving cancer folks blasted by fate and circumstance, who are good people.

This is not to say that those without adequate health insurance don't come in for their share of abuse.  Someone will be quick to blame them for not having adequate coverage (that doesn't exist), or will say it's not their responsibility to bail them out if they don't have enough cash to take care of their own family, or that any talk of the need for adequate universal health care is the same thing as saying we should open the borders and give all our jobs away to illegal immigrants and spit on the flag and become Communists.

Well, it doesn't matter.  If that malicious Scrooge of a governor in Wisconsin and all his cronies have their way, we'll all be panhandling soon enough for our medical bills, food, shelter, and clothing.  Though it's going to be awfully hard to catch the attention of those with the cash to spare as they zip out of the gated communities in their chauffeured cars on their way to wherever it is the ultra-mega-rich hang out.  Oh well, there's always the casinos and lottery tickets. Or maybe, if we're lucky, they'll make a Foundation Scott Walker Peron for us!


14 responses so far

  • Thegoodman says:

    I think there is a clear difference between pan handlers and fundraising events; obviously the fundraising events provide you with something you ideally enjoy or need. I know you know this, just want to point it out.

    Thanks for the stats on the homeless. I had ignorantly assumed that many homeless people were mentally unstable, addicts, or both. That is not to say they don't need or deserve help; they do, but the image of a child as homeless really pulls my heartstrings (as it should anyone with a heart).

    The healthcare debate in this country is amazing. I think just about anyone, sensible or not, will agree our current healthcare system is broken. You would also be hard pressed to find a SINGLE person who has read more than 10 pages of the 1990 page bill. I am concerned with how much every person is spouting off in opposition to or in support of a bill they literally know nothing about.

    I personally support it because our current system is broken so I am all for trying something new. It seems like the overall message of the bill proponents is that every person in our great nation will be taken care of medically. Why is that such a bad thing?

    • Zuska says:

      So why don't we have benefit concerts for local families/kids who are homeless? Why don't we put up blogs and have car washes to raise money for food pantries and homeless shelters? And if we did - would people turn out the same way they do for the "person with cancer needs help with medical bills" fundraisers?

      • Thegoodman says:

        I just googled "Benefit concert for the homeless" and got a handful of results.

        I know a local sports team asks attending coming to the game to bring canned goods that are collected in barrels outside. Food drives like this seem fairly common to me.

        Maybe its just a regional thing, but I can't recall seeing a single "medical bill fundraiser" event in my area.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    The real question is why, in a country this wealthy, any citizen should have to have fundraisers to afford their healthcare? Shouldn't that be a fundamental right for everyone, not just those who are wealthy or who have the means to tap into wealthy friends via fundraisers?

  • Marcus says:

    Are the situations that comparable? In a large sense I suppose. There's a big difference between a website with cute pictures and a scruffy guy sticking his hand in your face, regardless of the actual need.

    Part of the difference is knowing what the situation is and being confident where the money is going. That's a factor with any sort of donation, be it to a homeless person or a random website with a some story. That's why some people won't give money but will buy the person a meal.

    I have seen benefits for people who are close to being homeless, might get evicted, just got laid off. Those have all worked as designed, as far as I know.

    • Sarah says:

      'There's a big difference between a website with cute pictures and a scruffy guy sticking his hand in your face, regardless of the actual need.'

      What about a scruffy family with young children sticking their hands in your face? Or a pregnant woman? While it certainly is true that there's a difference between people with cute pictures, knowledge of rudimentary web design and a network of friends to recruit to help spread the word of their plight and people without those things, what exactly is that difference? It may simply be one of class and comfort - middle-class folks are uncomfortable with visible need, and an obviously suffering, unwashed person on the street is unpleasant to look at. A highly organized, not-yet-visibly-ill person (or better yet, a proxy for that person, perhaps a healthy family member) is much more palatable.

  • highnumber says:

    You make a mistake when you conflate panhandling with homelessness. I don't know that any stats have been collected to back this up, but, if I may speak anecdotally, my experience, which includes both working on a volunteer basis with people in crisis and working downtown in a large city, tells me that there are people desperately seeking food and shelter and there are people asking for a dollar on the street and they are rarely the same people. The person asking you for cash has found a pitiful niche and you are just encouraging them to remain there.

  • --bill says:

    I give the Untied Way.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I look at it as a social metaphorical application of Goedel's Theorem: no formal (in this case "formal" in the social sense) system can be both complete and consistent. By the time it covers all of the possible cases where it might be needed, it's so huge as to be totally useless.

    So I'm reasonably content if a the formal support systems cover enough that the fundraisers are only needed now and then. If neighbors help neighbors (e.g. most churches' discretionary aid funds) and other less formal but more flexible mechanisms cover the cases that the big systems can't, we're doing much better than societies normally do.

  • Ria says:

    It's a shame that it is so popular to assume that simply handing money to a person/fundraiser/organization is the limit of obligation to help those in need. Money is necessary, of course, but so is personal volunteer time. Time to help in a soup kitchen, or to go through donations of material goods for disaster relief or the poor, helping through various organizations that provide mental health care or counseling services to those who need them but cannot afford them, etc. Simply giving money away is a cop out. When _each_ citizen takes the time and effort to personally help those in need, suddenly the 'needy' are no longer faceless. They are no longer separate from us. They are no longer someone to be feared (and let's face it, people DO fear the homeless, the disenfranchised, the poor...if only to fear being ripped off or assaulted). This helps the person in need in new ways also...they can, with the interaction with those who are not at the same status of need, begin to reassert their personhood separate from their victimhood/need/illness/misfortune. As a result, they can regain hope.

    This is why it is critical that we do NOT depend upon large and impersonal government organizations to meet the needs of those in our communities. We, as citizens, need to get ourselves out and help our neighbors ourselves through locally run organizations that find excellent ways to meet the needs in each different community.

  • I've gladly contributed to medical fundraisers in the recent past- for a badly injured artist and a gravely ill musician. Sparing them scorn at their patriarchal title, the Sons of Norway get this one right.

    Two things need to happen before our broken healthcare system can begin to heal:
    1. Prices for goods and services are set by the regulatory body handling the single-payer system- NOT by industry. (oops, that's three things.)
    2. Insurance companies are banished from the scene. When paying for your doctor's services, an insurance company's administration adds no value.

    Assuming that homelessness is largely due to a lack of money- do the available statistics suggest that it's due to lack of a job at all, or due to low wages from the jobs available? With the thread's segué to healthcare, do the statistics suggest a tradeoff between shelter and medicine- with medicine winning, and the family losing all?

  • The description of the homeless given here sounds very much like the Hoovervilles depicted in the stage show "Annie" (but not the movie) and in an episode of Dr. Who from, I think, season three of the resurrected series. But I don't see any sign of a new FDR coming with a new New Deal. Indeed, sitting here 10,000 miles away, all I see is a concerted, deliberate and bipartisan effort to declare such a person anathema.

    Similarly with the health system. The goal seems to be make health care as expensive as possible and that people die because they can't afford health care is taken as a measure of success.

    It reminds me very much of the situation in Islamic countries. It is the duty of each Muslim to give to the poor, so you'd better have a substantial pool of poor to give to and you'd better make sure they stay poor. So soup kitchens and donations of material goods are fine, but don't do anything to remove the need for the soup kitchens or donations.

    It's as if you've watched "It's a Wonderful Life" and decided you want Pottersville much more than Bedford Falls.

  • Luna_the_cat says:

    Plays into this, doesn't it:

    Unfortunately, an awful lot of Americans have bought into a mythology of who "deserves" what, which actually works against the interests of the majority of Americans. It is, however, absolutely to the advantage of the 1%.

    And the 1% have absolutely no motivation to change the system, since hey, it works out perfectly all right for them, and further, they have absolutely no conception of what it is like for the have-nots. The people in charge are the ones who have never missed a meal in their lives, unless they wanted to. They have never had to worry about losing their home over unpaid medical bills. And from that position, it is extremely easy to believe that the people who that happens to, are to blame for their own misfortune...and to use that conviction of belief to convince others.