Panhandlers: Who Are They and How Do We Help?

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Walking past someone holding a sign and asking for help can sometimes be uncomfortable. Whether to give them money or walk right past them as if they’re not there is a personal decision. Some may feel guilty if they don’t help, others simply don’t care. What would you do?

People like these can be seen all over the United States and are right here in Athens. You may see them on Court Street sitting under the hot sun or you may see them standing on the exit ramp of East State Street collecting money from passing drivers.

Some Athens residents were not satisfied with the sight of people begging for money, or in other words “panhandlers.”

Complaints from citizens resulted in Athens Chief of Police, Tom Pyle, releasing a public service announcement saying, “oftentimes panhandlers are masters of deception, and are not all what they claim to be.”

“While some panhandlers claim to homeless, out of work, out of gas, have sick or pregnant family members, etc. the truth is many are addicts fueling their drug and alcohol habits, or they are con-artists scamming the public for money,” Pyle said.

Some disagree with the warning Pyle gave to Athens residents. A man by the name of Harold, also known as “grasshopper,” sits under the Athena Grand from time to time with a sign claiming he’s a veteran in need of food and money. He makes handcrafted jewelry in exchange for money.

From the sight of him, Harold would fit the criteria of a panhandler. When Pyle’s statement was brought to his attention, he made the argument that not all panhandlers are con-artists. He claims there are some who lie about what they do with their money and some do have addictions, but disagreed with Pyle’s general statement.

Homeless advocates like Eric Tars, Senior Attorney at National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, believes communities should help those asking for help instead of trying to negatively stereotype them and push them out of sight. Tars says there is data showing it costs communities less to provide the homeless with housing than it is to incarcerate them or put them in homeless shelters.

“If communities took the time to see when they’re asked to do something, what’s the best thing we can do, what’s the most cost effective thing, the best thing to use our tax dollars in the community to actually solve the problem of homelessness and not just push it out of public view at a greater cost to ourselves,” Tars said.