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What Is Panhandling?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 16, 2024
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Panhandling occurs when a person solicits money, food, or other items of value from a stranger on public or private property. It might constitute passive or aggressive begging, which ranges from simply holding out a cup for spare change to using pressure to convince someone to give money. Panhandlers, also called beggars, vagrants, or cadgers, appear internationally, and levels of tolerance for the activity vary. Some regions enact laws to control panhandling while other countries impose no regulations against begging.

Beggars are typically male, single, and unemployed. Studies conducted on panhandling show some people soliciting money in public suffer from drug or alcohol abuse. They are more prevalent in cities with heavy pedestrian or vehicular traffic, especially near train and bus stations, subways, and college campuses. Some panhandlers find lucrative opportunities outside restaurants and grocery stores because people might be more willing to give after eating or purchasing food.

Two basic attitudes exist on public soliciting: sympathetic and unsympathetic. People who are sympathetic to beggars might believe begging is necessary for vagrants' survival, and panhandling needs no regulation. They may feel a social responsibility to help those less fortunate. People who take an unsympathetic view might see panhandling as frightening, disrupting the peace, and contributing to other crimes. They generally favor laws that punish beggars and regulate their behavior.

Some regions attempt to deal with vagrants by limiting the hours of the day when begging is allowed, such as banning nighttime soliciting. Other laws prohibit panhandling in certain areas where pedestrian or auto traffic might be impeded. In some cities, beggars are not allowed near public transit, automatic teller machines, restaurants, and other designated places. Some regions impose registration and licensing requirements before anyone can ask for money.

Passive panhandling might include someone standing outside a business with his or her hand out while holding a sign asking for money. Street entertainers who perform in public with a container nearby to accept donations fall into the passive begging category, along with people who wash car windows at traffic signals hoping to receive a donation. Even if a beggar does not verbally ask for money, it might be considered solicitation. Laws against passive begging might end up in court, where they are challenged under freedom of speech rights.

Aggressive panhandling is usually considered more serious and the focus of legislation. If a vagrant blocks passage or continues to ask for money after being refused, it constitutes aggressive behavior in some areas. Acting in a threatening manner that frightens a person may also come under the definition. Touching someone while begging, or using foul or obscene language, may be deemed aggressive actions in certain jurisdictions.

Beggars may claim a certain corner or location they find profitable. Research shows younger people are more likely to give money to panhandlers than older citizens. The elderly usually are more fearful of vagrants because they question their ability to protect themselves. Women, minorities, college students, and tourists may be good sources of income for the vagabond because they tend to donate more freely.

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