The Woman at the Stoplight

I did something a few weeks ago that I have never done before.

We have a phenomenon in Madison that the city officials are trying to disallow.  There are certain intersections in the city that are often frequented by people who are asking for money.  The panhandling occurs as cars are stopped for a red light.

The person who is doing the panhandling — man or woman — usually looks rather “rough.”  A few belongings are seen nearby.  He or she is holding up a hand printed cardboard sign asking for money and perhaps indicating something about their difficult circumstances (e.g., lost a job, can’t find work, homeless).

panhandler sign.jpg

I have never seen a panhandler being aggressive toward a driver.  They seem to stand silently in place in the median, letting their personal appearance and handmade sign speak for them.

One time, at one such intersection, I saw the driver in the car ahead of me roll down his window, stick his arm out, and hand the man a bill.  That was the first time I had actually seen a driver do that — hand money over to the person in the median.

So what I did a few weeks ago was exactly that.  I was stopped at a red light, and a woman was standing in the median right next to my car — belongings located at her feet, looking rough, holding her sign.  I scrambled to get a $5 bill out of my wallet, rolled down the window, and called out to her.  She took the money, looked me in the eye and said “God bless you, God bless you.”

Now, I don’t know what she’ll use the money for, I don’t know what her circumstances are, I don’t know if she ekes out a few dollars a day from her panhandling or (as some claim) hundreds of dollars a day.  But it’s hard for me to imagine anyone standing out there, with their downtrodden and impoverished circumstances for everyone to see, unless they are genuinely desperate.  In the moment, it felt like the right thing to do. Other thoughts?






16 thoughts on “The Woman at the Stoplight

  1. Living close to an urban area where I am, at intersections I frequently pass by those likely without homes. Many wear vests which indicate they are registered with the city/county in order to panhandle. One gentleman lives under the bridge near an intersection and my partner hands him food or some dollars or toiletries occasionally. She learned his name “Tim” and that the city had donated him a bed to store under the bridge. We’ve seen him share certain possessions with another who may be in a similar living situation as him. He’s one of many folks likely without homes with whom we have gotten to know/interact, albeit just brief encounters or observations. Sometimes I offer up possessions or start a conversation, and sometimes I don’t. I’d say overall I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of not holding judgment about how my offerings are taken or used after the exchange which plagued my decisions to give before. Am I enabling? Will they just use it to buy substances? Is their story of need truthful? –Who am I to make that judgment or hold that condition over them anyway? Instead now, I hope that my offering is used in whatever way is helpful or meaningful to that person–to help contribute to making their day a little better in whatever (hopefully legal way) they choose. If you’re without a home, there’s a high probability that money or item will be used for basic needs/well-being than spent “frivolously” anyway. And if it is, that’s their decision to make. I also try to bring some humanity to the interaction beyond the typical exchange if I can, like offering choice or talking about something other than the exchange itself, “I gotta banana, do you like bananas?” “It’s so nice to see the sun today–thank goodness that rain stopped!” l

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  2. What a great story. I have a friend from california who sees many everyday. She takes twelve baggies of a sandwich and fresh fruit and tosses it to them….so feeds 12 if they are hungry……the other betty

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  3. While a student in Madison in the late 70’s, a panhandler approached me near Capitol Square wanting money.. Being a student, I didn’t have much but I invited him to go with me to a nearby Woolworth’s for lunch and I would pay for his meal. He declined. He only wanted money so that was the end of that.

    When I lived in Ohio, panhandlers on the corners of city streets were very common. I even witnessed two guys fighting over a prime spot one morning. A lower limb amputee with an exaggerated limp would beg on one corner. He would roll up his pant leg so you could see he was an amputee. Yet, in the grocery store nearby, he’d roll his pant leg down and walk almost normally. Over the years, I felt enough compassion to hand over a few dollars now and then and once, when accosted in the parking lot of a grocery store while loading my groceries, I gave the person a yogurt, as it was the only thing in my bags that was ready to eat. (He said he was hungry) He wasn’t pleased that I gave him food instead of money and as I watched him cross the lot, he threw the unopened yogurt in the trash.

    The Akron Beacon Journal did a story on them one time and a reporter stood on the corner and netted a whole $40 that day. (He donated it.) He also interviewed people who wanted to work and also a person who hired anyone to do yard work and construction clean up. Since most homeless are provided cell phones (at least in Akron), he gave them the phone number and offered to pick them up if they called. Not one person called, yet they were back on the street begging shortly thereafter. There was also a group that actually hired people to panhandle on the corners. Tax free, to boot.

    So, while my compassion is still there, but I no longer provide handouts, no matter what the story. It is enabling and ultimately, demeaning to them I found that some social service organization in Akron provided “street cards” with all kinds of information and addresses and phone numbers for whatever services they might need in the way of shelter, food, medication, healthcare. I passed those out instead. Some people acted grateful, others just shrugged. I wish I would have thought to pack the information with a sandwich.

    If we didn’t give them handouts, would they find a better solution?? As much as it might feel good to hand someone a few bucks, it’s not the answer. What is? Homelessness has many facets: drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, joblessness……Wish I knew.


    • Ah, thank you for remembering and sharing and deepening our thinking. Throwing the yogurt in the trash will stick with me! As does the person declining your offer of lunch at Woolworths. Your responses seem so compassionate to me, but panhandling is obviously not easy to understand! Thank you!


  4. Betty, This reminded me of a time when I handed some money to a woman walking through stopped traffic on a crowded bridge in Chicago. Like you, I found myself reacting in the moment to someone I was convinced was in need. I’ve thought about that situation a lot since and reading your post really stirred things up for me again. It also stimulated my thinking about a whole host of issues related to social justice, homelessness, and otherness. Thank you, again, for so courageously sharing your experience.

    Fondly, Sue


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Betty,
    I have mixed feelings. I have certainly witnessed the situation you described, and at times have responded as you did. But I’ve also had other experiences:
    I do home visits so am in my car a good part of the day. On any given day, I see panhandlers at several dozen intersections. I’ve seen behavior that makes the intersection dangerous for the panhandler, other pedestrians and motorists–darting out into traffic, behaving in ways to get the attention of motorists in multiple lanes and traffic directions, etc. It is that behavior that has resulted in several local municipalities trying to regulate panhandling.
    Another experience is a bit more unsettling. A few years ago I had a client–someone with SSI, Medicaid, a roof over his head and a warm bed–who worked a busy corner near an office park. This was his major daily occupation. I don’t know how much money he made each day, but I saw him at his corner several times, with his cane in one hand, a sign in the other, and his scruffy backpack propped against a sign pole. I was told by another client that bringing a dog along yields more money. I have also recognized individuals who are currently staying at a nearby shelter–who have turned down job training and other classes-who prefer to work a corner six blocks from the shelter.
    So my responses when the situation arises are inconsistent. Sometimes I offer money. More often I don’t. I have consider making up little bags with a few toiletries, a snack and a few dollars to hand out the window, but I have also seen the contents of those kinds of bags dumped in bushes nearby. I’ll be interested in others’ opinions and experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. If a panhandler is asking for money they need it, of course they need it. Here in Juneau the city fathers are trying to pass a bill that will make sleeping on the street illegal. Street people huddle in doorways with their blankets and sleep. The shelters are full and won’t take inebriates. If this law passes I suppose Street people will have to wander into the woods to sleep. Giving money to panhandlers is a good thing to do but we have to do more, we must work to get housing and a stable environment for those who need it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve done the same thing, Betty!

    Some people say “they’re working a scam.” But they’re out there day after day and in all kinds of weather. If I had some place where they could work I’d offer that instead of mon.

    Your question is a good one – that many have.


  8. This blog made me think of the true story of a Streetcat named Bob, by James Bowen. I don’t know if it’s available in the USA, but it’s a book and a film. Yes, there’s a cute ginger cat. But it’s much more than that. The power of occupation is there to see, slowly being seized as a means of getting out of a very troubled situation. I’m sad to see how judgemental people are about why someone might beg for money: who are we to judge? But I do try to think critically about what actions might be most helpful. Hope you get to enjoy the film/book, Betty!


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