Roadside Desperation and the Aesthetics of Panhandling
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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 marginalnotes.typepad.com