One day, for a school project, I watched a panhandler for an hour, counting how many times he was given money or food. Where I am from, there is a general attitude that a beggar can “make a lot of money” taking advantage of the good will of others. As Ronald Reagan put it, “one problem we’ve had, even in the best of times. And that is the people who are sleeping on the grates; the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice” . This assumption is generalized into an entire population; ironically, the people in our country who need the most help have become the most demonized. I set out to see what assumptions about this community seemed true.
This is my journal from that project:
I was given the assignment for a class to observe people in a public place for an hour and to record my observations. It took a long time to come up with a way to make it rewarding, but eventually an idea came to me.
So, I grabbed some lunch and drove down to Walmart to do some creeping. Instead of going in, though, I sat in my car to observe a panhandler that frequents the busy intersection that leads into the shopping center. My terrible artistic talent demonstrates exactly what I was seeing:
I wanted to know just how many people stopped to help the man in the picture during an hour time frame. What I saw blew my mind.
I arrived at Walmart at 3:40 PM on a Saturday, a time that I thought would have the heaviest traffic of the week. Within the first 5 minutes of sitting at the intersection, 25 cars had passed the man. No one stopped to offer help.
As the hour wore on, I noticed a trend. The intersection has a line that indicates where people should stop at the light, the line was just forward of where the man (we will call him Bill) was sitting. The first car at the intersection would consistently pull ahead of the line. Doing this ensured that they couldn’t easily see Bill (see above: the line is barely visible near the rear axle of the SUV at the exit). Once I noticed this behavior, there was never a time in which the front car at the intersection wasn’t pulled significantly forward of this mark. Additionally, the next car in line would always stay significantly behind the front car, again at a point where they could be as far from Bill as possible.
Finally, one vehicle stopped and the driver stooped out. I could see Bill approach and take something from his hands. As the vehicle left, Bill stood and waved. It was the only vehicle out of 86 to help him. At 5:45 Bill picked up his backpack and walked off into the distance. I felt the guilt well up in me, I didn’t have any cash to give him and I had just seen 85 vehicles avoid him like a leper. To ease my conscience, I thought of the times in which I had stopped to help people at that intersection, but I could still see him walking away. I wasn’t going to be able to put this to the back of my mind.
I would like to think that everyone who passed and didn’t help did so because they weren’t able to, or because they consistently do other things in order to help the poor; but that’s not something that I’m sure I can believe. As I sat and watched, I had fox news playing in the background. It provided a strange contrast to what I was watching. “Liberals are waging a war on capitalism, they think that it is evil to expect people to buy their video games and cell phones with their own money – so instead they redistribute our wealth…YOUR MONEY…so that these people can continue to live off of our tax dollars.”
Bill didn’t look like he played video games, in fact, it looked like everything he owned was in the bag he carried. Who knows why he was sitting on that corner? Maybe he has a mental disease and can’t work, maybe he’s injured, maybe he just doesn’t make enough money at his three part time jobs in order to support his family. There is an infinite number of explanations.
If anything became clear as I watched Bill, it was that the pittance he received on the street corner wasn’t going to get him back on his feet. I have sincere doubts that there are enough people in the United States willing to donate enough time and money in order to sufficiently help the poor. Whatever the circumstances may be, we have an obligation to help others as we are able to. There is no denying that we as a culture have the resources to provide jobs and assistance to these people, but we cry wolf when the poor aren’t in a position to take advantage of the resources already in place, and instead we accuse them of being idle and conning the system…it seems more than a little messed up…
 Reeves, Richard. President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. (c) 2005. p. 212.