Roadside Desperation and the Aesthetics of Panhandling

A roadside panhandler in the midst of winter (image from J. Ronald Lee).

A roadside panhandler in the midst of winter (image from J. Ronald Lee).

In the past decade a host of panhandlers have stationed themselves along American roadsides, off-ramps and street corners appealing to drivers for support.  Panhandling has resided at the fringes of urban consciousness for centuries, and now the desperation of the unemployed, homeless, and impoverished is a commonplace fixture along American roadsides.  Stationed along busy thoroughfares, patrolling the medians, and standing vigil on expressway ramps, roadside panhandling sounds some age-old challenges of poverty even as it adds the new wrinkle of taking aim on the unquestioned sanctity of car culture.

California streetside panhandler (image from ).

California streetside panhandler (image from joshuaseye).

Personal ill fortune is a familiar display in the fashion, bodies, and handmade signs dotting early 21st century streetsides, and some communities aspire to render that desperation publicly invisible.  The presence of impoverishment and panhandlers in public space has long vexed ideologues: Some urban centers have tried to abolish “aggressive” panhandling (spearheaded by a 1987 Seattle ordinance, and now followed by over 100 cities including Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Evanston, Illinois, and San Antonio), and a few communities have tried to expressly outlaw or manage roadside solicitation (e.g., Ocala, Florida, Montgomery County, Maryland, Durham, North Carolina).  Much of this apprehension responds to no especially concrete threat, even though most communities cite ambiguous worries about danger to pedestrians.  Instead, the effort to legislatively control roadside solicitation reflects that uncomfortable class and privilege anxieties are fueled by the visibility of our most desperate neighbors.

An anti-panhandling campaign suggested that donations and generosity increased the problems of communities and pandhandlers (image form )

An anti-panhandling campaign suggested that donations and generosity increased the problems of communities and pandhandlers (image from marginalnotes)

Nearly all of the spaces in which roadside panhandlers are stationed would seem to be examples of the apparently inconsequential spaces that Marc Auge has referred to as “non-places”: that is, intersections, off-ramps, or street margins are inconsequential transient points akin to doctor’s waiting rooms, airport lounges, or ATMs.  A roadside panhandler hazards disrupting the unexamined passage between places, which is perhaps reflected in a common feeling of being “trapped“ at the hands of roadside solicitors.  For instance, in 2013 a Florida ordinance argued that “motorists feel they are a `captive audience’ trapped at stoplights in fear.”  The perception of threat and the sense of anxiety are sufficient to warrant state measures to regulate roadside panhandling.

Handmade signs aspire to capture ill fortune in a single-phrase narrative and seize our sympathy and loose coins.  The messages are relatively predictable emotional appeals: invocations of faith, veteran’s status, ill fortune, ambitions to begin again, and parenthood are commonplace tropes on roadside signs.  The explicit message of a roadside panhandling sign may not be especially consequential, though; that is, the sign is perhaps no more than a confirmation of disenfranchisement that all drivers recognize when they see somebody stationed at a corner eyeing the oncoming traffic.

A veteran appeals for help alongside a distinctively dressed neighbor (image shindoverse)

A veteran appeals for help alongside a distinctively dressed neighbor (image shindoverse)

Policing the disenfranchised in the early 21st century has proven to be enormously difficult, so the most interesting wrinkle has been to instead discipline those of us who might hand some change out our window at a stoplight. A series of communities have launched assertive anti-panhandling campaigns that target givers rather than the impoverished, aspiring to convince potential givers that their donations simply intensify existing addictions and impoverishment.  Wise Up Columbus (Ohio), for instance, provided cards to be given to panhandlers linking them to services; Auburn, California likewise produced handouts; Redding, California’s “Handouts Don’t Help” campaign worries that “most panhandlers go unrecognized by our local programs, because they are not accessing services, they may not be in need, or they may not be from our area”; Atlanta’s “Give Change that Makes Sense” campaign recommends that “If you encounter a panhandler, always walk away with certainty and confidence”; and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s “Don’t Give Where It Can’t Help” campaign acknowledged in 2007 that it initially secured only about $100 in donations.  Perhaps some of these local projects provide critical services to local people who are panhandling at roadside, but much of this national interest seems to be in making the streetscape more invisible by sweeping aside the disenfranchised.  Oddly enough, panhandlers risk turning mundane intersections into confirmations of the inequities of contemporary capitalism instead of non-places.


Marc Auge

1995 Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity.  Trans. By John Howe.  Verso, New York.

Daniel R. Kerr

2011 Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio.  University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.

Stephen Edward Lankenau

1997 Native sons: A social exploration of panhandling.  PhD Dissertation, University of Maryland College Park.

1999 Stronger than Dirt: Public Humiliation and Status Enhancement among PanhandlersJournal of Contemporary Ethnography 28(3): 288–318.

Barrett A. Lee and Chad R. Farrell

2003 Buddy, can you spare a dime? Homelessness, panhandling, and the public. Urban Affairs Review 38(3): 299-324.

Sarah G. MacKinnon

2008 Discursive discrimination and panhandling in Winnipeg newspapers.  Master’s Thesis, University of Manitoba.

Kerry Segrave

2011 Begging in America, 1850-1940: The Needy, the Frauds, the Charities and the Law.  McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC.

Louisa R. Stark

1992 From lemons to lemonade: An ethnographic sketch of late twentieth-century panhandling. New England Journal of Public Policy 8(1):341-352.

David Bruce Taylor

1999 Begging for change: A social ecological study of aggressive panhandling and social control in Los Angeles.  PhD Dissertation, University of California, Irvine.


2007 California roadside vet image from shindoverse

Massachusetts 2001 roadside panhandler image from J. Ronald Lee

Roadside panhandler image from joshuaseye

Your Generosity is Killing Me image from

Posted on January 19, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Hmmm. This is a good theme to take on, except I feel the need for more “local knowledge.” I’ve lived in two large cities where this practice is very common and (for instance) in one of those places, I felt like ordinances supposed to prohibit it were more or less stigmatizing panhandlers, who didn’t seem to be in concrete physical danger, while in the other, I was relieved when it happened because I had seen at least a half dozen near misses. My point is that different cities have different cultures of pedestrianism into which these practices insert themselves. In the second city, where I live now, there is a huge problem with cars hitting pedestrians who disobey the traffic laws (that didn’t exist in the first), not just panhandlers. I suppose you could argue that the panhandlers are more visibly disobedient of the new law and more likely to be punished for their disobedience, but I don’t think the only or primary purpose of the law is punitive to panhandlers. Part of it is the desire by the city to bring down car insurance rates for drivers who are constantly encountering pedestrians.

    • Yes, some genuine ethnographic data would tell us something substantive about how people experience the streets and car culture in different places. I am in a place (Indianapolis) that is exceptionally committed to car travel and makes any pedestrian motion potentially dangerous. But I agree that different ordinances are driven by a complex range of factors that include some discomfort with panhandlers and poverty as well as some genuine uneasiness with pedestrian dangers.

  2. Reblogged this on KeepItDeen and commented:
    A really good look at how we tend to ‘outlaw’ what makes us uncomfortable. Some things aren’t acceptable to public life due to its possible effects on general society.

  3. Sure, and it’s cheaper to make a restrictive law than to add pedestrian possibilities to the drivescape, that’s certainly true. I’m skeptical, though, that in the setting in which I live, that making the thoroughfares safer for pedestrians would change much about their behavior simply because three different driving/pedestrian cultures are well represented in the city’s inhabitants. To some extent pedestrians behave unwisely here because they did that “at home” as well because everyone did. There the behavior marked them as normal, here, it makes them look poor / crazy.

  4. Interesting topic. We don’t have too many panhandlers by the side of the road in Australia, but I’d say that about 50% of the time I use public transport, I get asked for spare change. The number of drug addicts and mentally ill people begging on the streets, at train stations and on trains has definitely risen in the last few years. I have visited the US twice in the last four years and have been shocked at and saddened by the number of beggars. Citizens in Australia can get the unemployment benefit indefinitely, so you find it is more likely to be those who need to feed a habit who are begging on the street. (That is a generalisation, of course, and there are many exceptions, including many people who have to live in their car because of a shortage of public housing). I always get annoyed at cities spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions, in some cases), instead of helping people who need it by providing public amenities, drinking fountains and so on.

  5. It is tremendously difficult for many people in comfortable situations to be faced with their own privilege and, by extension, the very real fact that privilege is not always earned and may be nothing more than good fortune (as simple as a mind not defined as mentally disordered, for instance). We are eager to ascribe others’ misfortune to their own failings, to say that we deserve what we have and they do not because they don’t take their medicine, can’t afford housing, use drugs, and so on. Simply because it is discomfiting to many of us and forces us to examine difficult issues including class, addiction, and mental illness seems a valid argument for not outlawing it. Pretending these issues don’t exist is not going to make the problems better.

  6. In Portland, Oregon, the “Sit-Lie” Ordinance much advocated by our downtown chamber of commerce targets the panhandlers in a core pedestrian area that allegedly seeks to decrease automobile traffic. It was instituted and then struck down, but keeps rearing its unconstitutional head.

  7. Reblogged this on Mexicology and commented:
    How the other half (of the country) spanges…

  1. Pingback: Roadside Desperation and the Aesthetics of Panhandling | KeepItDeen

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