A panhandler is a beggar, or someone who relies on the charity of others for survival. “Panhandler” is primarily an American slang term, and it is often associated with aggressive begging tactics. Many visitors to American cities have interacted with panhandlers, who are often members of the homeless community. Beggars in general are an ancient part of human society, and they are treated in varying ways depending on where they are in the world.
In the United States, many people dislike panhandlers. This is often due to a lack of understanding about homelessness, mental illness, and other factors which can lead someone to turn to panhandling. Panhandlers are often told to “get a job” and they may be abused by members of the public as often as they are offered charity. Panhandlers are also given a bad name by people who use aggressive or questionable tactics to get money from passerby.
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An aggressive panhandler may be stationed near a bank or automatic teller machine, or in close proximity to a church in the hopes of appealing to the charitable traditions associated with many religions. People may also shout or pull at passerby in an attempt to force donations from them. Some panhandlers will follow people, scoff at small donations, or set up near an exclusive business in the hopes of pressuring the business owner to pay them to leave.
Of course, panhandlers can be less aggressive. Many of them sit quietly in doorways or in other public spaces with handmade signs which are meant to appeal to the humanity of passerby. Some pride themselves on creating witty signs which may reference stereotypes about panhandlers, like the idea that all panhandlers use their collected funds to buy alcohol and drugs. Some may also use techniques which ask for money obliquely, like claiming that they need money for a bus or asking for a meal.
In some cultures, beggars actually actually play an important social role. In both Hinduism and Islam, for example, charity to beggars is required for all people of faith. By donating to beggars, the faithful can fulfill a major tenant of their religion, increasing the chances that they will be admitted into paradise or reincarnated in a good body, depending on the faith. In some cases, a beggar may be someone who has taken a vow of poverty and chosen to live as a beggar for a set period of time.
The decision to donate or not to a panhandler is yours alone. You may choose to support charities which offer assistance to the homeless in the form of meals, housing, and medical care, rather than giving money to a panhandler directly. You should not allow aggressive tactics to strong-arm you into donating, but you may want to consider that most panhandlers arrive in their situations due to an unfortunate series of events which could someday happen to you.