The Pittsburgh panhandlers are trekking new territory, expanding beyond the Pitt campus to new areas, like the central commercial artery of my principally residential neighborhood. I'm wondering if it's a shift in the supply or the demand curve that's producing these market dynamics--is anticipation of holiday generosity the motivating force? Or is it the handful of bitter cold days and nights that the city has seen in the past week?
My behavior has changed as well--I'm much more likely to avoid these individuals, if I can identify them far enough back on the sidewalk. I'll cross the street. I'll say I don't have any change when all I need to do to find some is dig around a bit in the front pocket of my shoulder bag. I give only if there are some coins or maybe a dollar easily accessible in my pocket. But even then...I sometimes don't want to be bothered.
I'm somewhat unhappy that I've come to respond in this way. I used to be quite receptive to many people on the streets, if I felt confident enough that they weren't dangerous. I think now it's the critical mass that's driving me away. And then I walk away, and I start justifying it with some kind of uninformed economic argument. If you give them change, that will just encourage them to stay on the street, and not seek out social services or work or whatever. Or, sometimes I go off onto a mental tangent about how charity is really a simplistic answer to things, it's the band-aid that covers up the real need, which is systematic change, in public policy and affordable housing and education and so on. Oh, and there's everyone's favorite answer--"They'll just use it to buy drugs."
But then, I start changing my perspective. Say the person on the sidewalk gets no donations on any given night, and is driven to desperation by cold or hunger or whatever. Is that desperation going to be the motivation that gets them to seek out some miraculous, rational solution to their problems? Probably not. What they're doing is already a desperate measure, and failure at even panhandling will probably lead them to more desperate measures yet. And if we're talking about an individual with mental illness, then there is even less hope.
And then, the charity-is-too-simple argument. This worries me in general, and especially amongst liberals, who sometimes act like private charity is a Republican thing. Well, yes and no. It's one thing to try to replace important government programs with private dollars. And one may fear that the existence of charitable organizations might give the policymakers the impression that the problem is taken care of. I doubt it. On the contrary, legislators might see their constituents pouring money into a cause and realize that there's an issue of serious importance there.
And at the level of me on the street with the panhandler, this is a non-issue. My giving change to that man or woman has nothing to do with progress on programs regardling homelessness and the like.
Anyways, if anyone has any thoughts to add, please do so.