I’m not for the panhandlers, and I’m not against the panhandlers. I just need to talk about the panhandlers. It seems to me that our “most livable city” is divided between citizens in cars and citizens on median strips.
Five years ago, if I saw a man standing on a median strip begging for money, I would feel guilty enough to roll down my window and give him money, being quite certain that he needed it. Today, there are so many people asking for money that I don’t know what to do.
Dear panhandlers: When I drive by you, I am flooded with questions and consumed with conflict. Should I give you money? Should I pretend you are not there? Are you really homeless? Should I become outraged by your circumstances? Should I be mad at the city, the state, the economy, the weather, you?
My one clear thought as I approach you is this: I am here in my warm car and you are standing in 10-degree weather, and we are both living in the “most livable city.”
The other day I drove by a panhandler who looked to be in his early 20s. His sign read: “Need bus ticket to get to Houlton.”
In my early 20s, I did not always have enough money to take a bus home to Pittsfield, so I occasionally hitchhiked. I stood at the bottom of the Forest Avenue ramp – don’t remember having a sign – and waited for a ride. Several hours later I would appear, unannounced, at my parents’ central Maine doorstep.
Appealing to my vanity and hoping to shame me out of my scary behavior, my mother once dragged me out to the interstate to point out a young woman who was hitchhiking. “See, Jolene, this is what you look like,” she said.
“Dude, if you need to get to Houlton, I totally understand,” I thought and leaned out my window to give him $2. When he reached into my passenger window to take the cash, he noticed my yoga mat and asked if I was going to a yoga class. I said, “Yes” and drove on. It was a joyous exchange on a rare sunny Saturday between two people who were going somewhere.
Last Sunday, I watched a panhandler stop what she was doing (panhandling) and run to the sidewalk from the median strip to hit the pedestrian walk button, which promptly stopped traffic at her median station. Stopping traffic apparently increased the chances of drivers giving money. Smart move, I thought.
Two days after I exchanged pleasantries with the 20-something panhandler needing a bus ticket to Houlton, I saw him again at a different intersection holding the same sign.
Houlton is three miles from the Canadian border and nearly 400 miles from Portland. The standard Greyhound bus fare is $81. (I looked it up.) The question is: If I see him again, should I give him more money to get him on that bus or take him to yoga?
What once was a rare occurrence in our most livable city has turned into an every day, every intersection epidemic. Men and women have taken to begging out of desperation – or maybe not.
This is the question I can’t seem to answer for myself or for my daughter, who, last spring, when there were double the number of men and women panhandling, asked, “Mom, I know this is going to sound really bad, but do you think all these people are homeless?”
“No, absolutely not.” (I couldn’t believe my response.) “I don’t know what’s going on,” I said. Which was the truth.
Then she asked, “Do you think they crumple the edges of their cardboard signs to make them look old?”
“Yes, I think some do,” I said.
And then she said, “Because I often think about how good my sign would look.”
Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at: