I’ve really never been either so I’m talking about something here with which I have no first-hand experience. No points to make here, just thinking out loud.
In the last week I have seen three men, standing at intersections, holding cardboard signs that read: Struggling and Hungry. Two of these were in Columbia, MO (within a quarter mile of each other) and the third here in Jefferson City, MO. I’ll come back to the signs in a minute.
First, what do we call what these men were doing? “Begging” seems demeaning but “panhandling” seems euphemistic. “Homeless” seems to be the accepted term but we don’t know if the person has a home or not. But let’s go with homeless.
Second question: On what basis does someone decide to give/not give money to a homeless person? Physical appearance? Do they look hungry? Something in their expression or dress? Their body language? Do they have a dog? The answer is different for everyone of course and can change from encounter to encounter.
Is a homeless person aware of such considerations? Do they smile and make eye contact with motorists or have they found that to be a turn-off? Or a positive? Did they consciously bring their dog because they know dog lovers will be moved by the sight of the pooch? Have they learned that walking down the line of cars at a stop light can appear “pushy?”
Or perhaps by the time someone finds themselves on the side of highway holding a sign such calculations have given way to desperation. The answer is probably “all of the above.” Some are undoubtedly lazy and could get a job and some are at the end of their rope.
Back to the signs.
Do some signs work better than others? Would clean, printed sign say this person is just looking for a hand-out, while a ragged piece of cardboard with a scrawled plea touch a heart? And what about the “Struggling and Hungry” wording? Just coincidence? Or did someone discover (trial and error?) that phrase worked better than “Please help?” And is there any communication between sign-makers? Standing in line at McD’s perhaps? Do the homeless have smartphones and would that automatically kill a generous impulse? Should it?
I usually give if I can do so without endangering the person by making them dash between cars to get to my lane. And, yes, I usually give if there’s a dog (“Buy some food for the pup”). And I’m turned off when I see two people working an intersection. Do they see this a boring job and it’s better to have a pal to pass the time?