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My Personal Encounters With Panhandlers and They Weren't All Good

Updated on April 7, 2019
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Rev. Margaret Minnicks is an ordained Bible teacher. She writes many articles that are Bible lessons.


Panhandler: Definition

A panhandler is one who approaches and begs from a stranger. There are several theories why a person who begs for money on the street is called a panhandler.

One theory is that the way was first used as a slang expression when people begged in the region of Oklahoma and Texas during the 1930s. The term was spread to other states, including California, Florida, and West Virginia. Today, the slang term is used in every state.

Another theory is that the word emerged in the late 1800s because of the panning for gold around California's gold rush in the 1850s.

A third theory is that the container used for collecting money looked like a pan in the hand of the one holding it.

It doesn't matter which theory is correct because the people who beg for money on the streets today do not carry pans and neither is there a gold rush. Most, but not all, carry hand-printed signs with certain keywords to get the attention and appeal to the emotion of strangers. Also, some panhandlers have no signs. They just walk up to strangers and ask for what they want.

Other Terms for Panhandlers

Even though people who beg for money from strangers are considered to be homeless, the term used in this article is panhandler. It is used instead of homeless, bum, tramp, vagabond, vagrant, pauper or beggar because those terms are not the same.

A homeless person is not necessarily a panhandler, and a panhandler is not necessarily homeless.

Aggressive Panhandling: A Legal Expression

Aggressive panhandling is a legal term for unlawful forms of public begging. There are some state laws regarding aggressive panhandling. However, not many of the laws are obeyed or enforced.

Orlando, Florida has some interesting aggressive panhandling laws that were passed in 2004.

  • A permit is required from the police to beg in public in Orlando, Florida.
  • No begging can be within 50 feet of any bank or automated teller machine.
  • It is a crime in Orlando for panhandlers to make false or untrue statements, or to disguise themselves for the purpose of soliciting money from strangers.
  • A panhandler must not beg for money on behalf of others.
  • Money collected should not be spent on alcoholic beverages.

Panhandling laws in other places in the United States include the followings:

  • No begging at a bus stop.
  • No panhandling on any public transportation vehicle or in a public facility.
  • Panhandles are not allowed to beg within 50 feet of any bank or automated teller machine.
  • Begging should not be done on private property unless the panhandler has written permission from the owner.
  • Soliciting money from anyone under the age of 16 is not allowed.
  • Panhandlers should not intimidate the person being solicited.

Below are four unpleasant encounters this writer has had with panhandlers.

Panhandler | Source

1. Money Thrown on the Ground

I don't usually carry cash with me because I use my debit card for all purchases and services. One particular day I happened to have had three singles and a $10 bill in my wallet. When I was approached by a man, I didn't lie and say I didn't have cash because I had $13. When he asked for money for food, I peeled off three one dollar bills and kept the $10 for myself. The man thanked me and went on his way.

Around the corner came another man who had seen what I had done. When he asked for money, I gave him the $10 bill I had left even though it was a big sacrifice for me to give him that much. I placed the $10 bill in the man's hand and he asked me for more. I told him I had no more cash with me, and that was the truth. Without looking at the denomination, the man threw the bill on the ground and asked, "Why did you give the other man three times more than you gave me?"

Panhandler | Source

2. Negative Comment From a Panhandler

I had seen a panhandler standing on the corner almost every day winter or summer. He was always wearing the same clothes as he held a battered sign. One day I stop and offered him a granola bar.

He commented, "I don't eat that mess." He added, "Didn't you read my sign? I'm begging for money, not your granola bar."

3. Man Used Money for Beer

Once I was on my way inside 7-Eleven when a man asked me for money so he could go inside to buy a sandwich. I gave him a few dollars and he did head inside the store.

After I bought the few items I needed, I left the store. From the parking lot, I could the man was sitting on a stump behind the store drinking beer. It must have been his usual custom because there was a path among the trees.

Apparently, he preferred drinking his calories instead of eating them.

4. Was It a Scam?

An elderly woman was in a strip mall parking lot. She asked me for bus fare to get home because she was feeling ill. Even though her house was not in the direction I was going, I offered to take her home instead of giving her money to wait for a bus on that very hot day. Even though she said it was only 10-15 minutes away, it took a little longer to get there.

The trip was time-consuming because we had to put the walker in my car take it out of the car and up the steps at her house. I advised the woman that there is a van service to transport elderly people.

I was a few minutes late getting to an evening class. When I told my students the reason I was just a little late, they began to ask me questions about the woman. They described her and her situation without me telling them anything about her. Out of the 12 people in the class, five of them had helped the woman who had told them the same story.

How Much Do Panhandlers Make?

Back in 2015, the New York Post published a piece that a panhandler can make up to $200 per hour from strangers when he panhandles near Grand Central Station.

There have been other reports that panhandlers have bragged about getting up to $100K per year that is all tax-free. In other words, some panhandlers make more money per year than the strangers who give them money.

The average panhandler makes in some areas an average of $25 a day by begging for change on a city street.

Our Personal Decision to Give or Not to Give

My dilemma is like so many others. Should we give to panhandlers or should we not give? Jesus said in Matthew 25:40, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." However, many times we are left wondering if something is a scam or not.

As far as what people do with the money we give them, we won't know unless we actually see them spending the money as the man did at the 7-Eleven story mentioned above. Besides, once we give someone something, it is no longer ours.

I believe God put a check mark by my name when I gave the man a $10 bill and he threw it on the ground. It was not my fault in his haste and frustration that he thought it was just a $1 bill. The intent of my heart was pure as it was in the other unpleasant panhandler experiences.

Will I give to panhandlers again? I cannot base every encounter on those I mentioned in this article. Other experiences might be better and some might be worse. I know God will lead me in the right direction as He enables me to follow His will.

Have you ever had an unpleasant experience with panhandlers?

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