Why Street Youth Panhandle

Homeless Hub backgrounder on street youth panhandling.

Backgrounder: Why street youth panhandle

If you were walking down the street, and a homeless person asked you for money, would you give it to them?  What would you do?  This is an important question, and it in many ways depends not only on how you think about panhandling, but more generally, how you feel about homelessness.

If you think panhandling is bad and a nuisance, and that people who engage in it should find other means to make money, you might question the legality of panhandling, and argue that it should be banned.

On the other hand, you may believe that people who are homeless or who live in poverty have the right to panhandle in public places.  We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by advertising and intrusive sales pitches.  Many of us constantly deal with telemarketers, door to door sales people and overzealous store clerks.  Are these forms of solicitation acceptable while panhandling is not?

In this backgrounder, we will discuss what is known about how and why people panhandle, and what makes getting a regular job so difficult if you are homeless.

Why is this an important issue?
In order to survive, many people who are homeless may do many different things to earn money.  Sometimes they are able to get regular jobs.  But keeping a job isn’t easy when you are homeless (see below).  In such circumstances, people may have to rely on other means of making money, including panhandling (also known as begging), busking (playing music or performing for money) and squeegeeing (washing car windshields for change).  Others may be involved in illegal activities such as drug dealing.  Still others will be involved in the sex trade, including street prostitution, stripping and working for escort services, for instance.

Most of these activities are seen in a negative light by many members of the general public. The presence of panhandlers and squeegeers have in the past led to municipal and provincial laws and policies that effectively outlaw these activities (Hermer and Mosher, 2002; Parnaby, 2003).  The Safe Streets Act in Ontario is but one example of this (Hermer and Mosher, 2002).  On other occasions, local governments may ask citizens to stop giving money to panhandlers, the belief being that this only encourages people to continue living a particular kind of lifestyle.  The thinking goes that if we stop people from panhandling and squeegeeing, they will either: a) get a job, and /or b) access the homelessness services that can help them.

On the surface this may seem to make sense.  However, what does research tell us about homelessness and making money.

What is panhandling?  
Panhandling refers to the practice of asking people for money in public (or semi-public) environments, such as on the streets, in doorways, subways, shopping malls, etc.   Homeless youth panhandle to earn money, and for a large number of them this is their main income source.   Some homeless youth mainly just ask passers by for money.  In other cases, panhandling is more transactional in that the young people involved feel they provide a ‘service’ (which may or may not be solicited or welcomed by passers by) in exchange for money, including holding doors open, telling ’jokes’ for a dollar, busking, trying to make clever pitches to passers by or, for instance, using interesting signs.  

Some of the homeless youth interviewed by Gaetz and O’Grady (2002) were clearly aware of the degree to which they deliberately market their own poverty for the purposes of day to day survival.  Others remarked on the compromises and loss of self-esteem that this economic activity brings (Gaetz and O’Grady, 2002).  This is because people who panhandle are regularly abused by passers by who shout demeaning comments at them.  It is also important to note that people who panhandle are often robbed by other criminals who see them making money, and recognize their vulnerability.

So why do homeless youth panhandle?  
All young people have basic needs.  Panhandling allows street youth to earn cash in hand on a day-in, day-out basis.  This is important, because it allows them to make their own choices about what they want to do and when they want to do it.  Most people, for instance, like to make their own decisions regarding the food they eat.  Panhandling gives homeless youth small amounts of money that they can use to purchase food during the day (Gaetz, et al.,  2006).  

Why don’t homeless people just get a job?
While many people who are homeless do get jobs, there are those for whom the prospect of employment is a great challenge.  Is this because they don’t want to work?  There is strong evidence that the overwhelming majority of people who are homeless do want to work.  Studies by Gaetz and O’Grady (1999; 2002) found that 87% of young people who squeegee, panhandle and engage in illegal activities would much rather have a regular job.  And its not as if they aren’t trying.  In that 2002 study (sample: 360 youth in Toronto) street youth reported having on average over three different jobs in the previous year.

So, what gets in the way of getting a job and keeping it when you are homeless?  A good place to begin answering this question is to think about what allows you to go to school every day, or maintain a job. Most young people will know that it is hard enough to get a job when you live at home.  To GET a job, we all need the following: a permanent address to put on an application form (would you hire someone who didn’t have an address?), contact information, clean clothes, a resume, the ability to clean and groom oneself, money for transportation to interviews AND, not insignificantly, connections.  Many of us still get jobs through people we know, and if you are poor, you know fewer people who are in the labour force.

Of course, home is more than merely a physical space.  Most teenagers can also count on a broad and diverse range of social supports - including their parents and family, friends, neighbours, teachers and counselors, etc., - to provide emotional support and encouragement, nurturing and mentoring, educational support AND in some cases, the connections needed to get work.  All these factors enable a young person to pursue employment.

But getting a job is only half of it.  What about keeping a job?  What do you need?  Having a safe place to sleep at night (with a door that locks) is a start.  Its hard to work when you are overtired.  Having enough food to eat three meals a day matters.  Having enough money to get to and from work is important.  Having the right clothes, and the ability to keep them clean also counts. One needs a lot of resources to maintain a job, at least until your first pay cheque (oh yes, a bank account is important too).  

Many people who are homeless lack these basic necessities.

Key factors that can make employment a challenge
Understanding what gets in the way of finding and maintaining a job if you are homeless requires that we look at the following factors:

•    Lack of stable housing.   Lack of stable housing affects employability in the following ways: No phone for job search or call-backs; no address to put on resumes (a real confidence builder for potential employers), a limited ability to present a nice, clean appearance for job interviews and to maintain interview clothes.  Once a job is obtained, lack of housing means: inability to get proper rest, to keep healthy or to maintain the necessary structure in one’s life (eating regularly, preparing food for the next day, keeping track of time) and an inability to recover from illness or injury.

•    Inadequate education – In Canada, regardless of where you live, the more education a person possesses, the less likely he or she is to live in poverty. Unfortunately, many street youth leave home before they have completed high school.  Once homeless, staying in school becomes incredibly difficult.  Most programs for homeless youth in Canada focus on skills development (getting them into the job market) rather than on providing them with the opportunity to finish school.

In Gaetz and O’Grady’s study (2002) over 50% of street youth had less than a high school education. Evidence in Canada and elsewhere demonstrates again and again that early school leavers face a much tougher time getting and keeping jobs, and that they tend to be permanently relegated to low-paying service sector jobs with little opportunity of moving out of this job ghetto.  Because many street youth are early school leavers, they are much less competitive in the employment market - and this is particularly so for those whose primary means of making money is the sex trade or panhandling/squeegeeing.  

•    Poor health – Its hard to work if you are sick.  Unfortunately, being homeless has a negative impact on your health and well-being.  There is ample evidence that people who are homeless are more likely to suffer from a broad range of illnesses and conditions, that their immune systems are  compromised, and they experience barriers to accessing health services (Boivan, et al., 2005; Khandor & Mason, 2007; Tarasuk et al., 2005).

Poor health acts as a significant barrier to finding and maintaining employment.  It also undermines youth in their efforts to make the preliminary first steps towards entering the domain of formal employment.  Street youth are prone to a higher incidence of illness and injury, and because of their overall poor health there is consequently a longer recovery time.   Lack of proper nutrition and sleep affects a persons’ ability to work for long periods of time.  It also means that, in terms of presentation of self, street youth look more haggard.  In addition, the low self esteem that is exacerbated by life on the streets invariably impairs their ability to seek employment, make a strong presentation during a job interview, and maintain a job.

•    Short-term vs. long-term thinking  -  Being homeless adds chaos to one’s life.  You don’t know when you will eat next, or where your meal will come from.  Where will you sleep tonight?  Will you be safe?  One of the consequences of the chaotic lifestyle of street youth is that long term thinking and planning becomes more difficult, as short term needs must continually be met.  The immediate priorities of food, shelter and security, for instance loom much larger than is typically the case for mainstream teenagers, who are generally more able to focus on longer term goals (education, career) because they have more adequate supports.  For most teenagers, immediate needs may be defined more typically in terms of leisure and recreation.    

The short term thinking that is accentuated by the chaos and instability of the street youth lifestyle puts them in a vulnerable position, and often means that they do not have the luxury of considering the longer term consequences of behaviours (for example, engaging in unprotected sex, drug use, involvement in criminal acts).  It also may mean that obtaining money – today – may take priority over a longer term job search strategy.
Homelessness, panhandling and income

Young people who are homeless, then, are much like other young people: they want to work, and they want to be happy.  However, living in extreme poverty often gets in the way, and makes getting and maintaining a regular job really difficult for many of them.

So, lets go back to the opening question:  should you give a panhandler money?  Ultimately, it is up to you to decide.  If you do give someone money, remember, it is now their money and you really don’t have any say over how they spend it (any more than they have a say over how you spend your own money).  At the same time, if you choose not to give a panhandler money for whatever reason, it is always a good idea to acknowledge them and simply say something like “Sorry, not today”.  Everyone deserves respect.  

Stephen Gaetz, Bill O’Grady (2009)
Backgrounder:  “Why street youth panhandle”
Homeless Hub – Educational Resources.  
York University

Additional Reading:

To explore first hand accounts of the lives of people who have experienced homelessness, visit the Homeless Hub's Experiences section.

For more information on the following subjects, visit the Homeless Hub's Topics library:
-    Panhandling, Busking and Squeegeeing
-    Legal and Justice Issues
-    Criminalization of Homelessness
-    Discrimination
-    Income, Employment and Education

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