“Can You Spare 65 Cents for a Brother?”

Amidst my sundry errands yesterday — it’s been a busy weekend, because I’ll be on vacation in Las Vegas all next week — I stopped at a Burger King for lunch. As I sat in my truck, reading National Review and munching on my Whopper, a middle-aged African American male approached my window and yelled, “Hey. Hey, you.”

I ignored him. Just because a stranger wants my attention doesn’t mean he’s entitled to it, especially when I know what’s coming.

So he walks up to within five paces of the truck and yells, “Hey, man. You in the truck.”

I continue to ignore him.

So he walks up to my window and knocks hard on the glass. I look at him with a look of clear disapproval while he says, “Hey, man. Can you spare 65 cents for a brother?”

To which I replied: “Sorry, no.”

To which he replied, in a loud, high falsetto: “Damn.”

Then he shuffled away and stationed himself at the speaker stand at the BK drive-through, ready to ask for coin from anyone who decided they needed it their way that day.

I grow weary of aggressive panhandling.

Because I’m frequently downtown in Grand Rapids, I get approached for money almost daily. Sometimes it’s just the “Hey, you got a dollar?” routine and sometimes it’s “God bless you sir, I just need 50 cents for bus fare.” The more enterprising sorts insist on a full-blown conversation, demanding to shake your hand and asking questions about your day, your Christianity (or even, recently, to ask if I’m a racist). The goal of the panhandlers is to get some share of the cash in your pocket.

I’m not upset with the panhandlers, per se. After all, they have to make a living just like the rest of us. What bothers me their unwillingness to take no for an answer — to assume that they’re entitled to make their pitch in full. The best way to piss off a panhandler is to flat-out ignore him after he’s tried to get your attention 10 or more times. You’d think that after the fifth time you refuse to answer to a loudly shouted “hey, sir” or say “no, thanks” as you walk past, that they’d move on to the next target, but no. Doesn’t work like that, I guess.

I don’t contribute to panhandlers, largely out of (believe it or not) compassion. I’ve been around the block enough times to know that the money they’re soliciting isn’t going for food or for bus fare — it’s going to drugs and alcohol. The panhandlers are concentrated mostly on the stretch of Division Avenue between Franklin and Fulton. The Heartside neighborhood is chock full of homeless shelters and soup kitchens — in fact, a private study commissioned locally in Grand Rapids a few years ago concluded that the safety net for the homeless was perhaps too generous, in that the homeless had regular access to shelters and at least two large, full meals a day at no cost.

Alas, the aggressive panhandling works because wealthier passersby with money in their pocket are too conflict averse to respond to an assertive request for money with an equally assertive denial of such a request. There’s plenty of evidence that the more in-your-face, entrepreneurial style of panhandling can reap non-trivial income; some studies claim that well-practiced panhandlers can earn more each month than a full-time minimum wage job.

I wish nothing but the best for those who are either down on their luck or suffering from a mental illness that deprives them of socioeconomic stability. I donate generously to United Way and I’ve volunteered as a chaplain. I’ve worked on Habitat for Humanity houses.

But I refuse to feed addictive behaviors just because a panhandler won’t take no for an answer.

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