The typical profile of a panhandler that emerges from a number of studies is that of an unemployed, unmarried male in his 30s or 40s, with substance abuse problems, few family ties, a high school education, and laborer's skills. Some observers have noted that younger people—many of whom are runaways or otherwise transient—are turning to panhandling. Some panhandlers suffer from mental illness, but most do not. Many panhandlers have criminal records, but panhandlers are nearly as likely to have been crime victims as offenders. Some are transient, but most have been in their community or neighboring communities for a long time.
Contrary to common belief, panhandlers and homeless people are not necessarily one and the same. Many studies have found that only a small percentage of homeless people panhandle and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless.
Most studies conclude that panhandlers make rational economic choices—that is, they look to make money in the most efficient way possible. Panhandlers develop their own ”sales pitch“ and sometimes compete with one another for the rights to a particular sales pitch, or a particular location. Their sales pitches are usually, though not always, fraudulent in some respect. Some panhandlers will admit to passersby that they want money to buy alcohol (hoping candor will win them favor) though few will admit they intend to buy illegal drugs. Many panhandlers make it a habit to always be polite and appreciative, even when they are refused. Given the frequent hostility they experience, maintaining their composure can be a remarkable psychological feat. Panhandlers usually give some consideration to their physical appearance: they must balance looking needy against looking too offensive or threatening.
In all likelihood, if people stopped giving money to panhandlers, panhandling would cease. The public is discouraged from giving money to panhandlers. There are three main reasons for this: 1) experience tells us that many panhandlers use the money to buy alcohol and drugs, rather than goods and services that will improve their condition; 2) giving panhandlers small amounts of money is insufficient to address the underlying circumstances that cause them to panhandle; and 3) social services are available to meet panhandlers' food, clothing, shelter, health care, and employment needs. Some people do not understand the relationship between panhandling and substance abuse, or are unaware of available social services, however obvious these factors may seem. Rather, if inclined to provide assistance, the public is encouraged to donate money to reputable social service organizations which provide services to those in need.
The police and business communities are not uncaring. In many cases panhandlers have been afforded opportunities for employment and for social services, but do not accept either. In some cases their motives are disingenuous and/or misrepresent their true situation. In these cases, their manner of dress, the signs they hold, and their body language are used to generate sympathy without the public knowing their true intent. For those of us who are “not sure” about whether the expressed need is legitimate or not, giving just “a little bit” becomes justifiable. We feel good about doing it, while not feeling terribly “ripped off” if we were wrong. The problem is that many people giving just a “little bit” becomes “just enough” for the problem to continue. If the panhandler is in true need of social services, they don’t seek it because they are getting “just enough” to come back tomorrow. If the panhandler is misrepresenting their real need, they too are getting “just enough” to buy alcohol and/or drugs and come back again tomorrow. The problem exacerbates itself either way. Again, the public is discouraged from giving money directly to the panhandlers.
The Police Department understands the frustration of all involved, but trusts this information has provided you with a better understanding of the limitations we face when asked to deal with this important issue. We will continue to monitor and address panhandling concerns moving forward. If panhandlers are observed in the roadways impeding traffic, or are aggressive in their efforts towards panhandling, please report the activity to the Police Department by calling (847) 362-8310.
*much of the information provided was obtained from the Center from Problem Oriented Policing in a research article written by Michael S. Scott