Everything You Think You Know About Panhandlers Is Wrong

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"Everything You Think You Know About Panhandlers Is Wrong"

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A new survey of panhandlers in downtown San Francisco dispels a number of myths that society propagates about homeless people.

Conventional wisdom is that those on the sidewalk asking for a dollar are lazy freeloaders who will use the money for alcohol or drugs. Some even think that beggars are living large off of handouts, such as Fox News’ John Stossel, who has bravely used his television perch to take on beggars. “I had heard that some people beg for a living and make big bucks — $80,000 a year in some cases,” Stossel told Fox & Friends. “You really shouldn’t give to these street people,” Stossel concluded. “You are really supporting alcoholism and drug problems.”

Researchers wanted to test out whether this widely held view of panhandlers as lazy alcoholics getting rich off others was correct. The Union Square Business Improvement District, a collection of 500 property owners in downtown San Francisco, hired GLS Research to survey panhandlers over a two-day period in March.

They found that, for the vast majority of beggars, Stossel’s view was simply not true.

In San Francisco’s Union Square, the typical panhandler is a disabled middle-aged single male who is a racial minority and makes less than $25 per day despite panhandling seven days a week for more than five years. Though Stossel was insistent that panhandlers just use the money for beer and pot, the majority of those surveyed did not. In fact, 94 percent used the meager funds they raised for food.

In addition, some justify doing little to fight homelessness because, in their view, many homeless people don’t want help and prefer living on the streets. However, researchers discovered that, on the contrary, just 3 percent of panhandlers don’t want housing.

Among the survey’s findings:

  • 83 percent are men
  • 48 percent are African American
  • 31 percent are white
  • 69 percent are single
  • 26 percent served in the military
  • 70 percent are 40 to 59 years old
  • 58 percent have been panhandling for at least five years
  • 53 percent panhandle seven days a week
  • 60 percent make $25 a day or less
  • 94 percent use the money for food
  • 44 percent use it for drugs or alcohol
  • 62 percent are disabled
  • 25 percent are alcoholics
  • 32 percent are addicted to drugs
  • 82 percent are homeless

In total, 146 people participated in the survey.

Researchers also spoke with 400 people who had given money to panhandlers in the past year. They found that the largest group of people who chose to give were young working-class Bay Area residents. Empathy was a main driver; three in five said the gave “because they or a family member may be in need someday.”

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