Panhandling Pangs

by admin on July 6, 2011

My husband was backing out of a parking spot at a fairly busy store when a man suddenly knocked on the window of our van. DH was startled, and stopped where he was, blocking the aisle of the parking lot. When DH rolled down the window, the man shared his sad story with us. Apparently he was visiting from a smaller college town about 3 hours away and his wallet was stolen. His vehicle was out of gas and he was stranded. So he had stopped us to see if we had any money he could have for gas.

I have been approached like this several times in my life, and I try to help however I can. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my purse with me, and DH only had his debit card. So, as we looked around our vehicle for spare change, the man told us that he had filed a report with police, but “they’re not going to fill my tank”. At this point another car had come up behind us, but our van was blocking traffic. Inside the van, the baby started crying and my toddler was yelling that he had to go potty. As DH handed the man the change we had found, I wished him good luck and figured that was that.

The man wasn’t done though. He looked down at the coins in his hand and asked if that was it. After all, he still has to get home. DH was flustered and made the mistake of offering an excuse. He told the man that we didn’t have any cash, just our debit cards, so we couldn’t help him. That is when the man really showed his entitlement. With a car behind us, waiting, (the man had positioned himself in such a way that DH couldn’t move our van out of the way without hitting him), a crying baby, and a toddler yelling from the backseat, this man asked us, “Can you go inside and get some cash? Come on, do you know how embarrassing this is, to have to ask for money like this? I’ll pay you back if you want.” My jaw dropped. DH looked like he was ready to explode. At that point I leaned over and told the man no, that wasn’t possible. I again said good luck and good night. DH rolled up the window and the man tried to get his attention again. Finally he stormed off and DH was able to finish backing out and get out of the way of the car behind us. As we were driving off, the man raised his hand. Did he give a happy, thank-you wave? No, he did not. His wave was angry and he only used one finger.    0705-11

You encountered a professional panhandler who specifically targeted your vehicle right at the moment you were most vulnerable with a sob story as old as the hills.   A very good friend of mine had an uncle who professionally panhandled like this for a year and made a right decent yearly salary, too.   The story becomes less and less plausible as cell phones become more and more ubiquitous.   Run out of gas?  Call the wife, friend, co-worker, AAA.

It is not rude to decline to facilitate someone’s panhandling and public begging.  I personally would not have given him any money whatsoever but what you said to him was fine.   As you rightly concluded, no one is entitled to your hard earned money merely because they claim to be down on their luck.

{ 151 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle July 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm

The most recent scammer I’ve come across chose a karaoke studio parking lot as his spot. I guess he didn’t realize that anybody who goes to one of these places tends to be regulars, so we heard his story, verbatim, twice across 2-3 month span.


Jennifer Boozer July 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I live in the south, not a very large city, but we have the guys standing on roads saying that they will work for food, etc. I have started to get them like a bag lunch but no money. It makes me fell good and maybe get someone a hot meal.


ES July 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm

When I lived in Manhattan, I made a point to carry quarters in my wallet, and everybody who asked me for money got the same amount: 50 cents, or whatever untouched, wrapped food I might have. Some days I’d give out 3 or 4 dollars. Panhandlers would work their way along all the cars in a subway train. Some of them were obviously mentally ill, homeless, or drug addicts. Some were very talented buskers, others would just walk by with a container for the money. Many didn’t even bother with a story. I did this because I could not get the Bible verses Luke 6:30 and Matthew 5:42 out of my head.


Shoebox July 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

The Urban Legends Reference Pages ( has a most excellent article on how to deal fairly but firmly with pro panhandlers:

I myself learned the pitfalls of unstinting generosity a few years back, when confronted with a woman on a street corner, begging me to help a fellow ‘sister’ in distress. Before I got my purse out, she couldn’t exalt me enough, I was an angel come to help her; but as soon as I handed her a mere fifty cents (all the change I had on me, as it happens), the flow of praise dried up but quick.

From her disappointed expression as she stared at the coins in her palm, clearly angels were expected to pony up at least ten times that. It was a true black comedy moment, watching her struggle to figure out how to say so without ruining her grateful pose.

Funnily enough, a few months later a friend was eating in a coffee shop nearby, and (from the description as given me later) the same woman came in and gave her the exact same schpiel, she was homeless, she was hungry etc. Friend promptly offered the date square she’d just sat down with; panhandler gave her the same disappointed expression and continued to the next table, then the next, until management finally kicked her out.

I’m not advocating wholesale cynicism, here. I don’t usually give to panhandlers, but I do try and give them the grace as I would any fellow human being, eye contact and a pleasant word — and often I do get a smile in return. Once, I handed an older gentleman the bag of day-old (but still yummy) croissants I was bringing home from work, and was almost embarrassed by his profuse thanks.

It is absolutely possible for generous people to give help to who need it — just as long as you make sure they really will benefit from the transaction.


Rug Pilot July 6, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Years ago there was a very aggressive scam artist who stationed himself at the drive thru order kiosk at the local McDonald’s. He would add more food to each person’s order and then run up to the window where the food was delivered and try to steal it as it was being passed to the customer. I notified the employees of the restaurant about this and they were, to a person, not interested. I called the manager’s phone number for the district and reported it and they said they would get back to me. They never did. I finally called the police. He is no longer there.

Recently there was a curiously dressed young man at our local gas station trying to pump gas for money. He asked me three times after I had finished pumping my own gas, and followed me to the cashier’s window. I told the cashier about him and there was absolutely no interest. I called the police when I got home.

Panhandling, begging, extortion or whatever is illegal in most locations regardless of whether the person committing the crime is really needy or not. I recommend calling the police first. They will either help the person or arrest them.


Need to Change July 6, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I often give to panhandlers … if I can do so safely. But I also have standards. Someone who interferes with me in any way (e.g., standing in front of me or hollering) gets nothing. Manners count, Big Time.

Rap on my window? The only thing I’ll quietly reach for is my cell phone.


LovleAnjel July 6, 2011 at 12:45 pm


I like the honest ones. I was in Denver about a decade ago and a woman asked me for a quarter so she could buy some marijuana. I gave her the quarter.

In my current town we have a woman who walks around the bar district and asks people for five dollars. Five dollars! We run into her almost every time we go out, and every time she asks.


Meh July 6, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I am skeptical of the whole ‘panhandling as career’ theory. Sure, it happens. But I don’t believe that many and certainly not most panhandlers are doing it. If nothing else I reckon it is actually a veeeery difficult way to earn a living – hassling people takes a lot of energy and I can’t believe squeezing dribs and drabs of nickels and dimes out of people is all that efficient. Pumping gas would be way easier!


Peep July 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I’ve seen a lot of this kind of thing over the years, but the worst one happened about two years ago at the hotel parking lot after a science fiction convention. I wasn’t targeted, but my BIL was. We were all walking to the car, and an older man approached us. My husband and I were walking a bit ahead of the BIL and his wife, so the guy ended up targeting the BIL. He used the “I’m a Veteran” angle. When my BIL didn’t give him any money after several attempts, he started screaming “I hope you get cancer and die!” several times. He continued to shout that and other random profanities until we got in the car and drove away.

Another time was when I was working in a bad neighborhood in Detroit. Right across the street from my workplace was an abandoned house that several addicts used as a flop house/drug distribution center. One day a coworker comes in and says he’s been robbed. Turned out some guy had been following him for a block or two, and finally asked him for “thirty-five cents for some fried chicken”. My coworker whipped out his very expensive wallet that was always overflowing with cash, and the man just reached in and took everything he saw.


spartiechic July 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm

As a professional social worker, I used to work at a homeless shelter. If I saw someone panhandling, I’d get out my purse…and hand them a card for my shelter. I’m sorry to say that most of the stories told by panhandlers are total B.S. I should know…I used to listen to my clients brag about where they could make the most money and what lines to use on what kind of person. I will never ever give money to a panhandler. I feel that it’s enabling them to continue their lifestyle. I will, however, give them numbers to various charities that could help their situation for free. I once saw a man several times by the interstate. He had a sign that said he was a homeless vet trying to get enough money for a ticket home. I pulled over and gave him the name of a church that would help him buy a bus ticket. He thanked me and went about his business. I feel that a number to a helping agency is much better than a dollar. BTW…I never saw that man by the interstate again. He either saw my car once too often and worried I’d call the police, or he took my advice and contacted the church.


essie July 6, 2011 at 1:02 pm

When I first moved to Chicago years ago, I rode the Metro (commuter rail) in to work every day and the panhandlers would be stationed (pardon the pun) just outside the station. Being a hick from a small town, I fretted that I couldn’t/shouldn’t help, so one day I decided I WOULD respond, however possible. When the guy asked for change so he could buy some food, I opened my bag…and gave him the sandwich I’d brought for my lunch. Oddly enough, I never saw him again after that (and he had been a regular).

Just a couple of months ago, we were driving back home from a funeral in another state. When we pulled off the Interstate into a rest area , my husband was approached by a young guy who said he’d just run out of gas and neede money to buy some. My husband told him “No”. Sitting in the car, I heard the whole thing and I wondered “How is he going to get gas, here?” Like most rest areas, this one had bathrooms, vending machines, and maybe tourist brochures, that’s it. A few minutes later, I saw him back his car out of the parking space…and pull into one at the other end of the parking lot.

My father-in-law would say “I won’t give you any money, but if you’re hungry, I’ll buy you a meal.” Most of the time (not always, though), the panhandler would decline his offer.


Jillybean July 6, 2011 at 1:03 pm

@EditorBee – I had that happen to me on FB. My brother’s fiance messaged me from France. She had just been robbed at gun point and had no money or passport. Luckily they hadn’t gotten her phone, so she was able to message me through it. I chatted with her for about 10 minutes asking what I could do to help her out, and if I could call the police for her and send them to her location. Of course, the whole time, I was on the phone with my brother’s actual fiance. When I got the initial message, I called her. I said, “You aren’t by any chance in France are you?” She, was like, “Nooo, why?” “Been robbed at gunpoint recently?” She was so confused til I told her that her account had been hacked and I was at that moment discussing what I could do to help her with some fake her online. LOL

@Robert – that’s awesome!

As for the panhandlers. I was on the subway recently and there was a gentleman loudly going through the car trying to come up with enough money to take the commuter train (different than the subway) home. He was literally giving updates about what he needed based on what people were giving him. “Ok – that’s another $1.00. Now I just need $4.50. Doesn’t anyone have $4.50?” This went on for about 3 subway stops, and then he got pissed off. He stormed off the train screaming, “You are all a bunch of selfish [string of expletives].” Once the doors closed again a conversation started with the subway passengers. Just about everyone had seen him before, with the same story, and many had fallen for it the first time.

There’s also a guy near my office that will constantly ask for 65cents. I’ve yet to figure out what he wants to get for 65cents. One of these days I might ask him.


--Lia July 6, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Would someone who works in law enforcement and knows about these things please tell what actually happens when someone is mugged, their wallet stolen, and the police take a report. What do the police do to help when the story is legit? I honestly don’t know.

And now I’ll tell my story.

I’d stepped outside a restaurant to check on my dog who was tied up there. (Great dog but one who couldn’t be left alone without shredding the house.) A man walked up and started to cry as he told the story we all know so well. I listened until he got to the part about how the police would do nothing to help him. Then I interrupted and told him in no uncertain terms that my father AND my brother were police officers and that I was certain that they’d help. I offered to write down their names so he could ask for them particularly. I explained that my father was on duty that moment or he’d be in the restaurant having dinner with the rest of my family. Then I went back in.

Two years later the subject of scams came up. (And BTW, admin, you’re awfully polite to call this man a panhandler. He’s a scam artist. There’s a difference.) I was at dinner with old friends, one, my best friend, who’s known me for 25 years, and the other, her husband, who’s known me not as well for only 20. I told the story about the man, the tears, and how I explained that my father and brother were police officers. My friends and their teenage daughters laughed. Then my friend’s husband looked at me with all seriousness and said that he didn’t know my family was in law enforcement. (Dad’s a lawyer. My brother is a teacher.) I looked back at him and grinned waiting for him to get the point. The others got it right away and started laughing a little harder. He kept looking at me waiting for me to respond while I grinned right back. To this day, I’m not sure if he finally understood that I’m that good a liar or if he knew he was kidding with me all along.


KissofLye July 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm

@noph: Hahaha. Where were you in Memphis? I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never had a problem with panhandlers. We have people sitting out on the side of the road, begging for money and such but rarely do they approach you. The few times I’ve been approached they’ve asked for food and if I can give it to them I will.

Panhandling was a much bigger problem when I visited Paris. My favorite was the guy who had a sign asking for money while talking on a really expensive cellphone. I know that homeless people/poor people/ect need phones a lot of the time but the contrast was just so shocking.


bunnyface July 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm

My wallet was stolen this weekend while I was away, and I really had no money/ credit card to buy gas, nor my ID to pick up any money anyone from home could wire to me (and my banks at home do not have branches in the state in which I was, so I couldn’t even go in and try to prove my identity via passwords or anything. I went to the police station to report it, and they just said they’d call me if it was turned in. No offer to call anyone (which was fine since I had my cell) or offer to loan me gas money. Luckily a friend in a neighboring state volunteered to drive the 60 miles roundtrip to bring me some gas money to get home- it never once occurred to me to ask people on the street!


Steph July 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm

I have little patience for scammers and panhandlers, but there still are generous people around. One time I was buying a snack, and had waited in line for a pretty long time only to find out that the place was cash only. I had my debit card it my hand, but I don’t carry much cash, so when I dug in my pockets I only managed about $1.75 an I was a quarter short. I turned around lookin at my car, debating for a minute if it would be worth it to go see if I had any more change but probably lose my place in line, decide its not, and go to put my money back in my pocket and apologize to the worker, when the guy behind me says how much are you short? And hands me $.50 . I didn’t ask for help, and I was by no means starving, but it was still a nice thing to do.


AMC July 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

This makes me so sad because there really are people in the world who are in need of help. I always feel so bad when I see someone standing with a sign on a street corner. I wonder if it’s a scam or someone who really needs help. But I’ve learned not to give cash. The last time I encountered a panhandler, he was standing on the sidewalk holding sign that said he was a disabled veteran. There was a nearby sandwich shop and I was on my lunchbreak anyway, so I popped in, bought a sandwich for him and handed it to him on my way out. He was nice enough and thanked me. It may indeed have been a scam, but the way I figure it, I’m only out one sandwich.


Xtina July 6, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Some interesting stories here. I have only ever parted with maybe a couple dollar’s worth of change, thankfully, but I’ve also been approached by the same people enough times to be jaded to their stories by now, and I’m sorry to say that there are way more swindlers out there that are ruining it for the truly needy. I generally tell them, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you”, and walk off; this seems to be vague and honest enough without being confrontational. I try to avoid them in the first place—no eye contact, walking quickly to my destination, etc.

My husband has learned the hard way, though. He once fell victim to a scammer posing as a preacher who was in town (in a shopping center near a church) and out of gas—blah blah. He told my husband he’d mail his money back, and my husband was fool enough to give him our address on top of $20!!!! I reamed my husband when he got home for doing that; of course the returned money never showed up but thankfully neither did that man show up to break into our house or attack us.

Another man my husband helped out was a man offering to do odd jobs around our neighborhood. My husband was kind enough to just take the man to the store and bought him some groceries (he was really in need) and dropped him off at his apartment; he was appreciative, and again, my husband’s heart was in the right place but that was NOT a safe thing to do. At any rate, in the weeks that followed, this same man knocked on my neighbor’s door, told her that my husband owed him $10 and told him to collect it from her (my neighbor). She told him no, he must be mistaken, and sent him on his way. That night, when she was out, her home was broken into; same with the neighbor on the other side of us—neighbors across the street reported seeing a man that looked like the man who my husband helped, so we think it was probably that man who stole from my neighbors.

At any rate—probably best to keep the name of a homeless shelter or assistance ministry on you and give that to people the next time you’re approached—that way, if they are truly in need, they will find their way to people who can help them while you thwart the scammers. Or offer to buy them some food or gas (or whatever they’re asking for)—the truly needy won’t turn it down.


Caper July 6, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Reading all of the comments brought back a memory of an event that happened when I was about 14, which I came to believe was a scam.

I was in another city with a youth group I attended, at the time. Stupidly (and I hope the YG stopped this, but who knows) they separated us teens (who were in the 12-14 range) in to groups of our choosing, to wander around this strange town without adult supervision to hand out fliers for the BBQ the next night.

So, My friend, a younger girl and myself went off in our group. We ended up passing another group of older teen girls/possibly adults, who were apparently selling candy bars for a charity. When we said that we were sorry, we had no money, they began threatening to beat us up and calling us the most vile names you could imagine. This is why I really only give my spare change to charity stands in the mall / grocery store ( charities like the salvation army, etc.)


Baku-chan July 6, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Happens all the time to my grandmother in the NY subway. I guess they target her because they see a “little old lady”. My grandmother is anything but. The usual excuse is “Hey, I need money to get on the train.” She always offers to swipe her Metro card for them. Funnily enough, they always go “Oh no, forget it.” Um, I thought you needed to get onto the train?!


Christy July 6, 2011 at 2:03 pm

My mother works at a local church. After repeats of the same type of story – always gas to visit sick relatives in nearby cities, by the same people, the local churches created a charitable organization to meet legitimate needs of this type. Now when someone asks for gas money, they are referred to said organization (even driven there if needed). The organization will provide fuel cards to those in need but does keep a record of individuals that they give money to, which helps prevent repeated panhandling from people without a real need. You’d be surprised at how many people in “desperate need”, decide it’s too much trouble to go get a gas card.


Bint July 6, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I used to give money to street beggars in the Middle East but they don’t actually ask as you go past and they don’t expect much. Say ‘God is generous’, give a small note and that’s it.

Otherwise, absolutely not. Never. There are signs in London asking people *not* to give to beggars and suggesting various charities that help instead with contact details. I give to the Sally Army and that’s it.

I used to be approached quite a lot in Edinburgh – guys hang around on North Bridge saying ‘I need some money for the train back to Glasgow, can you help me?’ Local people tend to say, “Yeah, get the bus!” and walk off. Don’t *ever* give money to people who come up and beg in the street like this. If you’re desperate and you really have run out of fuel etc, you’ll find the police, not beg off local people. I just say ‘no, sorry’ and walk off. Seen it too often, not funding it, not wasting my time.


Caelen July 6, 2011 at 2:29 pm

See, I think everything you did was right.
I myself once had a very terrifying experience with a panhandler, although luckily it only cost me $2.
Some friends and I were walking, and passed this guy who was asking for bus money. We all said that we only had enough to get ourselves on the bus (true for all but myself, as it happened) and kept moving. The last person in our group passed him, however, and the panhandler grabbed his hand and refused to let go and began talking in a very menacing manner. At this point I was the only one who noticed and began to get a little worried so I went back to make sure everything was alright, at which point I noticed what was happening. The man tried to grab my hand to, as well as still refusing to let my friend go. I ended up giving him the $2 simply to ensure our safety.


LonelyHound July 6, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I will admit that I have had very limited sympathy for panhandlers but on occasion have bought food for a few. Once I was in a restaraunt with a friend. We had just settled into our lunch when a man came in the restaraunt. He said that he and his wife were down on their luck and had not eaten in days. He asked if he could have any leftover food. We told hin that we had just started and did not know how much would be left. He left us in peace. Surprisingly the serving portions were large and there was a large amount of leftovers left. We boxed up the leftovers. He came in and politely asked again. We gave him our food, he thanked us and left. It is people like this that make me sad that I cannot trust other panhandlers.

then again there are other times they make me mad. There was a guy who panhandled on a corner. I passed him for a week straight. the whole time he is sitting there looking dejected while listening to his iPod. I get that he could have stolen it but how is he keeping it charged through a week’s worht of useage?


Ruth July 6, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I live in the DC area so I’m pretty immune to a lot of this. On my walk home I run into political activists and panhandlers alike (I’m more sympathetic to the panhandlers because they almost never harass me).

Once when I was at a gas station, an unwell-looking woman in her early 60s told me that she had just been discharged from the nearby hospital and needed gas to get home to X. She said she didn’t have any money on her and her car was almost out of gas. I really don’t know if it was a scam or not, but I’d just lost my mother, also in her early 60s, so I told this woman I’d buy her 2 gallons. That’d be plenty of gas to get her as far as she was going and to a gas station besides.

Her story was very likely not true, but I figured that if she was professionally panhandling at her age, her life probably wasn’t that great and even as a grad student I could afford about $6 in gas.

My husband buys sandwiches for people who ask him for money for sandwiches (and once gave a guy $20 to boot, he’s a softie).

But your guy, OP, he had some nerve. Even if his story was 100% legit, you were under no obligation to help him and he was rude to assume otherwise.


Ami July 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm

You have a big heart for stopping, there’s no arguing that. But, when someone knocks on your window like that, it’s best not to answer, and continue driving.

Much like SillyMe’s friend, the last time I responded to a knock on the window, I ended up with a gun in my face and my and my BF’s wallets were stolen, and we were lucky to still have the car afterwords.

It hurts to walk away, because helping people is the decent thing to do, but you don’t know if the person you’re helping is an honest bloke, panhandler, or robber, and most of the time it’s not worth the risk.


Lady July 6, 2011 at 3:26 pm

I recently had a panhandler ask me for a dollar, which I was willing to give. He then mumbled something about “twenties.” I thought he meant that most people only have twenties, so don’t have dollar bills. I said “ATMs give twenties which is why most people only have those.” He then spoke more clearly saying “Some people bless me with twenties.”

If the dollar hadn’t already left my hands, I would have not given it to him. If one is begging for money, one would do well to not complain about the denomination.


ED July 6, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Wow, he was sure rude!

I work downtown of a major US city and I too have become jaded by panhandlers. I see the same ones everyday scamming tourist. I have offered to buy people things. They tell me they’re hungry, I tell them I’ll buy them lunch. They tell me they need groceries, I tell them I’ll buy them groceries. They tell me they need gas, I tell them I’ll pay to put $5 in the tank, but I won’t give them $5.

In all my years of encountering panhandlers I’ve had exactly one person take me up on the offer to buy something, rather than just give cash. It was a woman who had a sob story about needing money for groceries for her kids. I told her if she really needed groceries, I’d go in and buy her milk, eggs, peanut butter, jelly and bread. She took me up on the offer, and when I brought the bag out she seemed really grateful. I may have been scammed that time, but it seemed genuine, and I’m okay with that.

Other than that one time though, most of the panhandlers I’ve encountered have been rude and pushy, just like the one in the story.


Enna July 6, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Be very careful about giving money out, it would be interesting to know what the OP had given money for to complete strangers. I think the urban myth website has a list of scams to look out for. It’s one thing if it is a small amount – I had one girl ask me for 5p the telephone, she gave me a hug. Another time when I went to the vet to pay for a bill when I came out there was a man nearby saying he had waited an hour for somone and needed to borrow my phone and he would pay me. I said no as I hadn’t seen him on the way in – I was only in there for 5 minutes. In hindsight I would have directed him to the vets as if he needed to make a call he could have used their landline and not steal someone’s phone.


Miss Raven, the OP July 6, 2011 at 3:38 pm

In downtown Chicago there are plenty of panhandlers but none of them really approach you with sob stories. They’re just your poor, your tired, what have you and they set up in between the buskers with their sad little signs. I stopped carrying cash after a few weeks of working there so I could honestly say I had no cash, but I’d happily grab some food if I was running for some myself. I never experienced anything but extreme gratitude, even for just a cup of coffee and a sausage Mcbiscuit.

The only time I was ever approached by someone directly was when I was walking into a by-the-slice pizza joint and the guy sitting outside with all his worldy possessions asked if I would buy him a slice. How can you say no to a direct request like that? His cheeks were sunken and he clearly did not eat regularly so I had no problem with it, especially watching his face light up.

The simple requests for sustenance are what really get to me. I’m well-fed and I have been all my life, and although I’m not wealthy, I’d much rather share what little I have with someone who is not so fortunate. I guess I’m lucky I’ve never been directly approached with an obvious scam, but maybe it’s more frequent in other neighborhoods or just other cities.

The most heartbreaking one I ever saw was a young, dirty kid (late teens) with a backpack holding a cardboard sign next to the off-ramp of a highway in Asheville, NC, where there are plenty of wanderers passing through. It said, “Dreaming of a cheeseburger.” Who knows how long that poor kid had been on the road? I was too moved not to give him a few dollars, and I never saw him again.

… I think the moral of the story is that I’m a sucker.


Enna July 6, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I think Robert’s suggestion is good, offer to make a call or offer to buy the bus ticket home (depending how much it is).


--E July 6, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Years of commuting through Penn Station in New York cured me of ever giving money to people who tell me some sob story. I get a perverse glee out of saying something like, “Yeah, maybe you ought to change up your story once in a while” or “The other guy told this story better than you do.”

Con artists of this variety are very proud of their ability, and mocking them just gets right up their nose. Rude of me, maybe, but hey, New York is a rough town. 😉

The guys with a cup in the subway stations or on a corner…eh, I might throw in some change if I’m feeling generous. They’re almost always strung-out drug users, not con artists. (How to tell the difference: Con artists usually appear to be getting regular meals. Heroin or meth addicts are generally malnourished and have yellow sclera.) I’m extremely likely to give a couple of bits of change if he tells a good joke. Some of the homeless guys in New York are hilarious, which amazes me. Even in their straits, they find humor.

There was a regular in the station near my office for a long time, and he would greet me with a big smile and hello. He might wish me a good day at work; I would tell him to “keep safe.” We were two human beings recognizing each other’s humanity. I passed the guy almost every day. He would go missing for weeks at a time–he didn’t usually say where he was, but sometimes it was obviously the hospital, and sometimes I suspect it was Riker’s Island (NYC’s local jail for short-term sentences). But he was clearly an honest homeless guy, not a scam artist.


LilPrettyWonder July 6, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Ahh Panhandlers!
When I was in College, my best friend and I were walking downtown to get a bite to eat one evening. We were approached by a teary eyed young woman stating she had just had a fight with her boyfriend, was therefore stranded and needed money for an Amtrak ticket to go back home to her mother.
We felt sorry for her and handed her a couple dollars, she asked if we had any more and we said we didn’t. We offered to wait with her, call her mom or a friend, or perhaps call the police for help. She said she had someone she would be meeting but really needed the money. She kept pointing to the Amtrak schedule she had in her hand. We wished her well saying sorry we don’t have any more cash with us. She reluctantly moved on. We still weren’t sure if she was genuine or not and felt sorry for her and hoped she’d be okay.
A few weeks later there was an article in our college newspaper about her and her panhandling. Dubbed the “Crying Girl” ( she had apparently approached multiple people in different spots around town always with the same story. At times, she even got violent with people when they saw through her con.
We were more upset about having felt sorry for her than about the money which (wasn’t much anyway). When you have people like that running around, it makes you less likely to help people who’re genuinely in need.


ladycrim July 6, 2011 at 4:25 pm

I was scammed a few years ago by a woman with a toddler who gave me a sob story and swore she’d pay me back if I bought her groceries. I never saw a dime, but I don’t think I really expected to.

I’m still a bit of a soft touch, but these days, I have some rules about giving:

– Are they collecting for a reputable charity, as opposed to panhandling for themselves?
Today I gave one such person a dollar for his charity and a bottle of water for himself, as it was getting hot outside. He was very grateful for both.

– Are they doing something to at least try to earn the money, like playing an instrument?
I was in San Francisco over the weekend, and there were street performers and outright beggars alike. The performers got my change. Around here, there is a trumpet player downtown who has a well-trained little black bunny with him. (She puts her front paws on your leg to be petted, as if she were a puppy.) He tends to get a lot of money out of both me and my boyfriend.

Other than that, I tend to restrict my giving, and to my knowledge I haven’t been scammed since.


GEna July 6, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I was on vacation with my 8YO daughter. We had stopped at a gas station, and a man approached asking for a ride – he had just gotten off work, etc, etc. He may have noticed my out of state plates, although I don’t know what difference it might have made. I looked him straight in the eye and told him – You know good and well that no woman with a child is going to give you a ride. Is there some reason you are not asking any of these men around here for a ride?”

He walked off, and I quickly finished my transaction and left.


lkb July 6, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I guess I go by my mood and the circumstances. I am fortunate to live in a small town so I rarely encounter panhandlers. I do know they exist and that who knows how many are scammers.
Still, I sometimes recall an adage that goes something like you’re not supposed to worry about where the donation goes, you are just supposed to make an honest effort to help your neighbor. So, if I have something to give and I can do so safely, I give. If not, I don’t. I’m also a bit of a curmudgeon, so I don’t always do this — God forgive me.


Enna July 6, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Miss Raven (D-buddy!) I think you hit the nail on the head there – that man who asked for a slice of pizza clearly is geniune. I would give food to a homeless person but not money – if someone says “I need 5op for the phone” then thats fine. At university my housemate said she always gave food like a sandwich – when one begger said he’d rather have her money she didn’t give anything. When I was in the market one day a homeless man was smoking (someone might have given him a roll up) and yelling “I’m hungry!” – if he cut the aggression he might have someone buy him a bag of apples. However I would be careful about giving anything more then a bus fare home out – the risk is feeding a person’s drug habbit. Another homeless person would follow us about and we would ignore him and he would eventually leave us alone.


Margaret July 6, 2011 at 5:04 pm

I was once asked by a kid for two dollars for the bus. Gave it to him, but I was kind of lost and ended up walking back in the same direction half an hour later, and the kid was still there. Hmm. I just got asked for bus money again, this time in a mall. I declined and the guy wandered off. I should have directed him to customer service.

One time I was in a bookstore in a mall. I think I was picked because I was holding twenty dollars in my hand (I realized after). Anyway, a guy came up to me and started telling me about how his wife was in the hospital here and they lived in the next province and nobody would help them and what a terrible province this was. He actually got himself worked up, but then he walked away without asking for money! If he had given me two seconds to respond, I was all ready to give him information on finding crisis help.


Margaret July 6, 2011 at 5:09 pm

I should also mention — one time in the tunnels under downtown Toronto, a guy was set up with a sign asking for money or a job or food or something like that. He kindly opened the door for me as I was carrying something, and he didn’t ask for anything. Another time I was in downtown Calgary trying to find an office address, and a man who appeared to be homeless watched me wander around a bit. He asked what I was looking for, so I showed him the address and he pointed me on the way. Sometimes I wonder if I should have offered money to those guys. However, they didn’t ask, and I did thank them most gratefully.


LaurenP July 6, 2011 at 5:20 pm


I’m diabetic and look like a fit and healthy 20-year-old. I would not be above asking strangers to buy me a small carton of orange or apple juice if my blood sugar was low (severe hypoglycemia reduces your ability to see, move, or even remember what you’re doing). I’d happily reimburse them, though. I will admit that the people you encountered looked suspicious, however.

Generally with panhandlers, street salesmen, charity muggers, evangelists, I put on my music (quietish) and then walk straight past them, not even turning my head. They can then assume what they like, but talking to them only puts you in the postition of being expected to give money/time to them.


Lime July 6, 2011 at 6:06 pm

if we do have them around here, they’re usually by the mall/walmart. if I see someone begging on my way to walmart, I buy a box of granola bars and give it to them. Healthy non perisable food that will fill you up.

First time I did it there was a man with a dog. He had a sign that said “hard times, anything will help”. he was very dirty, but his dog was beautiful, brushed coat, clear blue eyes. Maybe he dirtied himself up for effect, maybe he knows he’s responsible for the dog and is taking care of it at the expense of his personal care. Maybe I’m a sucker, but when I stopped back with a box of granola bars I got a “god bless you” and when I handed him the box of milkbones for the dog, he cried.


AlwaysQuizzical July 6, 2011 at 6:12 pm

I usually just walk by panhandlers on the street without responding to their pleas for money. It could be considered rude by some, but if I’m not going to give them money then I consider talking to them to be a waste of time at best and at worst dangerous to me if they get offended. The only scary thing is after dark in the big city nearby are people who will come up to your car at a gas station or in a parking lot. They’ll knock on your window and point at your car like they see something wrong with it and are being a good samaritan, only to beg for money when you roll down your window. That scared the crud out of me and I gave her my change, only to be hit up later in the evening with someone else and not have change. Bad night.

I’ve run into a few people who tell me their sob stories in order to get me to offer to buy them things sadly for them that I’m a really, really oblivious person. When someone comes up to me to tell me how bad their day was I always think they just need an ear and some supportive words. It’s not till they storm off or a friend tells me later that I find out they were telling me that so that I’d give them money.


karma July 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Two memories come to mind when reading this story. Years ago I lived in a college town; the downtown area was frequently inhabited by panhandlers. The local teens caught on to how quickly people with disposable income would turn loose of it. The teens would station themselves at payphones outside restaurants and stores and wait for suckers to come out. As a group of folks were exiting a business, the teen would slap at their pockets and say aloud, “Aw man. My mom’s gonna kill me. Hey man……you got a quarter?” The patrons would drop a quarter into the teen’s hand and keep walking. The teen would repeat the scam with the next group. Being only 20 at the time, I thought it was amusing to watch. One of the kids once told me he could get 8-10 bucks a night doing that.

The other story is the ran-outta-gas-at-the-station scam. Around the same era, a 20-something aged scammer approached my boyfriend and I, the guy gave the whole spiel: visiting cousin from out of town, ran out of gas, can’t get anyone on the phone, supposed to be at his cousins an hour ago, etc. I said, “Well, go inside and ask to borrow a gas can. We’ll pay to fill you up.” He glared at me for a moment, then he said, “F-you”and walked away. We knew right then what the deal was.

On the other hand, when I was in college I did have a man from Texas who did not speak English once ask me for help. His car was filled with everything he owned. He explained in Spanish that he was trying to find family who lived in the town, but their number was no longer in service (not uncommon in that area–a very poor neighborhood). I called St. Joseph’s church in the area and put him on the phone with someone there who ran a shelter and spoke Spanish. After speaking to him for about five minutes, the worker talked back to me and told me where they were located a few blocks away; I offered to let the guy follow me over there (I drove my car, he drove his). At the church, the homeless workers talked with him (better Spanish than mine) and told me it was not uncommon to get young fellows like him who had driven to our state looking for work. The church actually ran a ministry that put folks like him up, helped them locate family or resources, and did translation. The guy was very gracious and thankful to the workers and to me, so I suspect his story was true.

I guess you just have to offer the resource (if you can do so safely) and see how the person reacts. Their reaction speaks volumes.


MakeMineRed July 6, 2011 at 6:27 pm

When I was vacationing in Vegas, there were plenty of panhandlers. I refused to give any money to them. One night, we were at Freemont Street trying to figure out how to take the bus back to our hotel. The posters didn’t give the info we were looking for. One guy, who obviously was not on his first beer of the day, was incredibly helpful in helping us figure out the system. I gave him some money. He earned it.

In my hometown, I was approached in a parking lot by a fellow carrying a gas can asking for some money. Apparently, he had run out of gas and left his wallet at home. Knowing how hard that can be, I gave him a couple bucks. I later read in the paper that this is a new twist on the scam…panhandlers actually carry a prop of some sort to make it seem more legitimate.


spyderboyy July 6, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I have a supply of MREs in my car trunk. If someone comes up to me to ask for money because they want something to eat, I will offer them an MRE. Half the time, they will turn their back and walk off. Other times they are gracious and accepting, in which case I will usually hang out and chat with them, and possibly give them some money at that point, if I can tell they are being genuine.


Hewahine July 6, 2011 at 6:39 pm

When I lived in a city in the 80s, I would buy those dollar McDonalds gift certificates and carry them. When someone asked for money, I’d give them a gift cert or two. Most of them got really PO’d (you can’t buy liquor at McDonalds LOL) but once in a while someone would be genuinely grateful. And folks that entertained me (like the guy who would make up songs about you as you approached – always flattering on approach and good naturedly dismissive as you passed, never offensive or vulgar) got a whole fist full!


FerrisW July 6, 2011 at 6:51 pm

OP- I think you handled the situation very well. I’m sorry someone took advantage of your generosity.

I used to always give money to people who asked, despite the fact I was assaulted by a panhandler as a child (I was 11, waiting for the bus home from school, and three drunk teens stopped and asked me for a dollar for the bus. I had no money, but when I told them that they threw me against a wall and started hitting me and my friends until the bus showed up and the busdriver chased them off. When I got home, my mum called the police and they were arrested).

Then a few months ago I stopped on my way to work and placed $10 in a Red Cross bucket. As soon as I’d walked away, a woman came up to me and asked for some money because she ‘needed it’. When I refused, saying I didn’t have any cash to spare, she laid into me about how she’d just seen me donate money. I reminded her that the reason the collection buckets were out was because of a large earthquake in our country that resulted in a large number of deaths.

Her response? Those people were dead and didn’t need my money, but she did. I was disgusted and tried to walk away when she grabbed me by the arm and demanded money again, digging her fingers in painfully. Luckily a passing man hurried over from across the road and told her to leave. She refused until he offered to call the police and let them deal with it. I was completely shaken both by her laying her hands on me and by her disregard of a tragedy that the entire country was still grieving.

There aren’t many panhandlers in my city, but I have to admit that I’ll be a lot more skeptical when approached from now on.


angelito July 6, 2011 at 7:06 pm

My Dad’s a pastor and gets this kind of story all the time. People who expect the church to be a handout. Some people give them sheets cards, but the trouble is they can also be used for cigarettes and such, which is an expensive habit we would rather not support.

The trick is sonoco has gas cards- all they are good for is gas. My Dad usually offers to take the person to the gas station and fill up their car and buy them a sandwich. The people who pout and want cash instead? They get nada.


Vanessa July 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm

As to professional panhandlers – I’m always reminded of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip”. Spoiler Alert – it’s about a man who makes a very good living as a panhandler in London in the 1800’s.

I haven’t seen a whole lot of people lately begging on street corners in the Albuquerque area. It seemed like for several years there were tons of them, but I guess the police have cracked down on them. I may be easily amused, but I always found it funny when they’d have some sign asking for money & be puffing away on a cigarette. You could usually see the rest of the pack in their pocket. If they had the money for cigarettes, they sure didn’t need any of MY money.

The last time I had actual contact was about 10 years ago while walking through the parking lot at the local Target. Two young women in a hoopty (old car) stopped near me (I made sure I was out of range for them to try snatching my purse). They gave me the usual sob story about needing help/money. I told them to contact the folks at the Salvation Army. They gave me dirty looks & drove off.


b-rock July 6, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I’m glad to see other Memphians on here! I’m with you though, I’ve lived in Midtown Memphis for years, and although of course we have our fair share of wanderers, panhandlers, what have you, it’s no worse here than anyplace else I’ve ever been. I’m rarely, if ever, aggressively approached. Most of our “locals” will ask for the occasional spare change, and then walk on.
I did have one experience like those described by others here, although it was in one of the outlying suburban areas, Cordova. A reasonably well-dressed guy approached with the “my car broke down, my wife is a nurse at baptist hospital, i’m trying to go pick her up from work, do you have $8.63 for a belt (for the car) at the 24-hour autozone”. It was such a specific story that my friend and I ponied up $6 between us. 2 weeks later, what do you think? Same guy, same story. I called him on his BS, and he got mad and wandered away. Oh well, you live and learn! As many of you have said, I will certainly buy food for those who need it, and I’ve been known to hand over some change for a particularly honest or humerous pitch, i.e. Need beer! 6-pack only $6.43, please help :)


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