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Tips for Engaging Panhandlers

Have grace and understanding for those on the streets.  
Heart over hand

Individuals who are on the streets asking for money every day are not bad people; they might  be folks with incredible challenges who need help. Recent studies have shown people with mental illness and physical disabilities do the highest percentage of panhandling. Start from a  place of compassion when thinking about or interacting with those on the streets. Many times, the most important thing you can give someone panhandling on the streets is a kind smile. Kindly acknowledge the person as a human being when you walk by.

What is panhandling?

The term “panhandling” traditionally refers to asking for money in a public space. Courts have ruled that it is protected (under the First Amendment) as free speech. Panhandling is not illegal unless the individual is blocking or harassing you in some fashion. If you witness or experience aggressive panhandling, call 911 and provide a brief description of the individual and the location.

What do we give them?

Many people give money to individuals with signs on the street because they want to help someone who appears to be struggling. However, offering cash provides only a very short-term intervention for one individual who may or may not be homeless. Instead of giving money, consider giving that person The West Hartford Cares Card, food or other essential items as a substitute for cash, or consider supporting a local social service agency. It is always appropriate to offer support and resources; however, resources may not always be accepted.

Know what’s available in the community.

Surrounding towns, for example, provide a variety of publicly available cooked meals, served by passionate volunteers. Be aware of these regional resources, and help steer people toward them, if asked. Your knowledge of them will empower you to direct people to sources that can help provide their most basic needs.

Think about solutions.

Long-term investments in permanent housing, shelters, and social and mental health remedies are the only way to fix the underlying causes of panhandling. Use your voice to let elected and civic leaders know how you feel, and express your support for continued homeless solutions, even if those solutions cost money. Register and exercise your right to vote. Get involved in Boards, Commissions, churches and grass roots organizations.  Remember that many frequent panhandlers might be people with physical and mental disabilities that make it impossible for them to access programs and services that help. The most vulnerable among us need our help getting off the streets, and many of them will need our help staying off the streets.