Buddy can you spare a loonie?

Jeb Blount
Next City
June 21, 1996


Who is on the streets and why


OF ALL THE MANIFESTATIONS OF URBAN POVERTY, PANHANDLING IS the most visible and the most disturbing. It assaults us during that most ordinary activity — walking down the street. Panhandlers are there when we walk to the cinema, when we go to work, when we stroll in the park. They prey on our emotions and our pocketbooks. To spare a dime, or not spare it, that really is a question.

Hard-core panhandlers have always existed. And yet, despite our social safety net (or maybe because of it), there are more beggars on street corners as each year passes. Accurate numbers are hard to come by because of the difficulty of pinning down a population that is very mobile. Many shelters try to keep track by counting beds or meals. Estimates in Toronto, for instance, range from 5,000 to 30,000. But whatever the numbers, the proliferation of panhandlers is a problem impossible to ignore.

Most of us will never come to grips with the unease we feel as we step around a bundle of rags lying on a subway grate, or as we hurry past that outstretched hand. Are these people just bums? Or are they victims of an uncaring society? Why doesn’t he get a job? Why can’t she go home? The truth is that all the myths are true. Some of them are crazy, some are sick, some would rather beg than work, some can’t keep a job, some have homes, some don’t. The reasons people beg are as varied as the people on the street, but from my observations, today’s panhandlers fall into three broad categories: traditional derelicts, Huck Finns and the mentally ill.

Traditional derelicts

THERE’S A NEW BEGGAR ON THE CORNER NEAR MY HOUSE. He’s not a regular yet. He only appears on weekend mornings when the two wrinkled and bulbous-nosed gentlemen, who live above a local herbalist shop, have given up drunken appeals for change from their post by a doughnut shop. He is neatly but unfashionably dressed. While not young, he looks strong, and his groomed beard shows no trace of grey. His hands are clean. In short, he seems to embody everything homeless advocates talk about: a decent healthy man who has tragically fallen through the cracks.

I gave him a loonie one morning by the newspaper box, and I asked him about his troubles. He told me his story in a voice edged with shame. His name was Bob. He had lost his job. He was homeless and very very hungry. He hadn’t eaten in more than a day.

After a few “bless-yous,” a humble bow and a gentle pat on the arm, he shuffled off.

I bought my paper and watched him continue his begging. Twenty minutes later, he poured the money from his cup into his hand, counted the change, stuffed it in his pocket and disappeared down the street. In a few minutes he was back, walking tall with a paper bag under his arm. Another much more ragged beggar, who makes his money opening doors for customers at the local branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia, approached Bob and tapped him on the shoulder. The two men exchanged smiles and greetings, and Bob pulled out a bottle of cheap, Chinese cooking wine from his bag. Exchanging knowing glances, they crossed the street and walked on toward a nearby park.

It is impossible not to feel sorry for them, but is Bob really the victim of a cruel and uncaring society? He is willing to lie about food to buy cheap hooch. He has enough wits to obtain decent clothing, keep himself clean and buy enough food to use his street corner earnings for drink rather than a meal. In short, he’s a bum and is beyond help until he decides to help himself. None of this should stop us from helping people like Bob. But we must admit that his situation and that of others like him is not something that a generous welfare state can really solve.

Bob and the other men who panhandle around my neighborhood have been a common sight on the streets of North America for more than a century. Many actually have homes, receive welfare and have access to counselling programs. Many have been on the same street corners for years, through economic boom and bust. We know them by many names: bums, rubbies, hobos, winos, dope fiends and vagabonds.

In the early parts of this century, cities such as Chicago, Toronto and New York were home to tens of thousands of homeless and transient men who rode the rails in summer to seasonal jobs on farms, ranches, mines, lumber camps and construction projects and tried to get by on that income during the winter. When their seasonal grub stake was up or they were too old or sick for hard labor, they languished on street corners, shantytowns or in emergency shelters run by churches and other charitable groups.

But seasonal jobs in mining, farming and forestry have become mechanized, limiting the need for unskilled labor. Gone are the slow and steady freight trains making regular stops for water and coal that provided free transportation between open-air hobo jungles. The plight of these derelicts gave rise to such social reforms as unemployment insurance, old age pensions and general welfare. In the years of the Depression, the elderly were the poorest social cohort in the population, today that group is the best off. Our social safety net has managed for 50 years to keep people off the streets.

Now, for increasingly complex reasons, they are coming back. But today’s derelicts have fewer opportunities to pull themselves together and hit the road. As a result, many remain down and out year round because of the lack of seasonal manual work. New age temporary jobs in such areas as telemarketing require too much education, discipline and personal grooming for most street people. The modern hobo is equipped to do little beyond delivering flyers. Today’s street corner rubbie has fallen off the map completely. He has destroyed his life with drink, drugs and despair and is unable, or unwilling, to use what social services are available.

Most derelicts are lost causes. Our culture’s general optimism prevents us from saying it so bluntly, but we can’t escape the fact that there are people who are unwilling or unable to be helped. Like long-term prison inmates, they know no other life than their life on the streets and find it difficult to adjust to life elsewhere. Many of the homeless are not homeless at all. On Vancouver’s skid row, for instance, are several of Canada’s most stable postal codes. The people who arrive in the cheap rooming houses and hotels east of downtown tend to stay. Clannish, many share rooms, help each other out when in trouble and find a kind of community in adversity. The traditional derelict is actually fairly well served by government and private charities, which by and large keep them at least minimally fed, warm in the winter and within asking range of a bath, medical care and social assistance. Kind people provide them with change and donations of blankets and clothes.

And there is a kind of community on the street. Many, like Bob and the beggars in my neighborhood, beg together, or stand their companions a drink when the pickings are good or they have welfare money. Panhandling is their job, their way of life. Whatever we do with our social programs, they will probably always be there.

Huck Finns

THE MOST STARTLING THING ABOUT THE KIDS PANHANDLING FOR CHANGE on Bloor Street West in Toronto is their politeness. Despite their tough dress, leather jackets, spiked and rainbow-colored hair, pierced noses, ears and cheeks, they inspire no fear. Their pets are calm and rarely bark at anyone. Little more than children, they solicit change from passers-by with cheerful greetings and a ready smile. What are these apparently good-natured, albeit strange looking, kids doing on the streets? The answer might be summed up by the old standard: “How do you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?”

Although many are fleeing abusive or dysfunctional family situations, freedom for an adolescent or young adult is a powerful drug, sometimes more important than financial security or even a warm bed. They can dress as they please, stay out as late as they want and take care of themselves. Once they are free of the nest, it is almost impossible to get a young person back in. Like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, many refuse to return home or take a space in a government program even if it is offered. Freedom is their goal, and whatever the difficulties, begging on the street is a kind of freedom.

A generation ago, begging was against the law. Across Canada and in the United States, vagrancy laws gave police a strong stick to beat such young people with. This is one of the most misunderstood sides of the panhandling problem. We allow people to beg because prohibiting it goes against our long evolving concept of liberty. If freedom of speech means anything, it at least means allowing a person to ask for help in public. The same goes for freedom of movement and assembly. One reason we see more young people begging is because they are allowed to. Ensuring that they do not mature into full-blown derelicts, prostitutes and drug addicts won’t be accomplished without realizing the natural tendency of the young to rebel against all authority, including that of a government interested in helping them.

The mentally disturbed

THERE IS A MAN KNOWN AT TORONTO’S HOMELESS SHELTERS WHO IS constantly being hospitalized because he compulsively picks the skin off his arms. Doctors treat the man and release him, but there is no way to make him stop. The man is also severely diabetic but refuses to take his medicine because he claims the Queen has ordered him not to. Everyone who deals with him is frustrated. Shelters have to take care of him, even though this seven-foot-tall, disturbed and diabetic man has a penchant for breaking into shelter pantries and eating everything. Doctors have to treat his self-inflicted wounds, even though they know he will continue to hurt himself. Because of policies begun decades ago aimed at phasing out beds in mental institutions, there are thousands like him begging or wandering our streets. At Toronto’s Queen Street Mental Hospital alone, the number of beds has fallen from a high of around 1,500 in the mid-1950s to only 450 today. Whatever the benefits of these policies, an increase in insane people on the streets is an undeniable result. According to some estimates, between half and two-thirds of street people suffer from mental illness. The situation has come about in part because of the discovery of drugs that allow many former inmates of mental institutions to live beyond the walls that used to legally confine and to a large degree protect them from the cruelties of the world beyond. But the old asylums were often little more than hell’s waiting room. The new drugs raised the hope that otherwise incompetent individuals could live more normal lives. And many now do. But problems arise with those who do not or cannot take their medication. This is an extremely tricky issue. Legal and medical advances have benefited many people who have been unjustly committed to institutions, but it seems we have gone too far in the other direction.

THE PANHANDLERS WE ENCOUNTER AS WE WALK DOWN THE STREET ARE not the only faces of poverty in Canada, just the most visible. Because they are always on the move, because they are so young or because they are ill and insane, the long arms of our social safety net cannot always reach the people who have made the street their home. But perhaps taking the time to look carefully at their faces will cast a little light on their situation. When you see a panhandler, remember “There but for the grace of God go I.” And help them out if you can. Let that kid wash your windshield. Give the old bag lady a sweater you don’t need. Donate to a food bank. Charity isn’t purely a government affair, it’s a private affair too. By asking, our most unfortunate fellows are showing that they are willing to accept some help. By giving, we show that all is not lost.




  1. Barb Craig RN, responds: May 26, 1996


Barb Craig, RN, responds: May 26, 1996


Dear Jeb,

As a community nurse with Street Health, I was interested in reading your article, “Buddy can you spare a loonie?” However, I was concerned with some of the discriminatory language in the article and the lack of hard facts.

Everyone has an anecdote about giving change to a ‘bum’ and then watching him/her spending it on alcohol. Horrors! How come people with jobs and who are housed are not chastised for going to the booze store? I am particularly concerned with your statement “Most derelicts are lost causes.” Derelicts are defined in the dictionary as social outcasts or vagrants. You neglected to talk about the lack of affordable housing and jobs contributing to homelessness. How about the fact that welfare rates were cut 23% while rents were not. Apartment evictions have gone up 25%. People cannot get jobs (have you heard of the recent recessions?) or are laid off. Their unemployment runs out. They go on welfare. They cannot afford Toronto rents. They end up on the street. They cannot get welfare without an address. They cannot get an address because they do not have a job and they do not have first and last month’s rent. You did not discuss the fact that Toronto is a magnate for people from all over the country who come in the hopes of finding a job and a new life. You did not include the fact that people on the street are a heterogeneous group with a multitude of backgrounds and reasons for being there. You did not describe the pain and heartbreak of living on the street, the people who become mentally ill (depressed, suicidal) or addicted to alcohol and drugs AFTER they end up on the streets. The Street Health Report, 1992, found that only 22.8% had been hospitalized for a mental health problem at some time. Only 24% had been given a psychiatric diagnosis at one time. Only 13% had received a diagnosis such as schizophrenia, manic depressive disorder, panic disorder or cognitive impairment. And only 16.8% reported daily alcohol consumption, compared to 16% of the regular population in the Toronto Community Health Survey.

Furthermore, there is the fact that many people cope quite well with or without a job and a home until a life-changing event happens such as death of a parent or spouse combined with other losses such as loss of a job. And finally, why don’t people look at root causes of homelessness? What makes people VULNERABLE to homelessness? A large research study by Paul Koegel in California indicated that a very large number of the homeless had had severe social disruption, separation and abuse in their childhoods which is now thought to put people at risk for homelessness. Are we now creating a whole new generation of homeless by cutting housing, welfare and other social supports? The longer someone is homeless and trying to survive on the street, the harder it is to adjust to being housed, shopping for groceries, maintaining a job, nutrition, etc.

So while I thank you for writing about the ‘panhandlers,’ I ask you to be a little more informed and to stay away from the derogatory language!!!

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