How much do panhandlers really make? Can you possibly make a living at this? How much of a difference does a funny sign make? Will people give to a guy in a banana suit? Does every sign have to say "God Bless?" Important questions. I aim to find the answers. Give me a dollar. God Bless.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I'm a douchebag

Continuing my hate theme, here's a flame war from MetaFilter.com. I really appreciated the link and the hate. Truth is most of the folks really dug what I was doing, and a couple of folks though I was a douchebag.
Here's the flame. I edited it down to the posts that related to the "controversy" but you can
read the whole thing here.

This guy may give his "earnings" to others who need it more (when he's guilted into it, middle of the entry), but he's still a douchebag.
posted by kyleg at 9:39 PM on September 5

Good God, I'm glad this guy feels entitled to fetishize the lives of people WHO HAVE TO BEG FOR A LIVING. Just to be clear- your lives consist of going to your job/school, going home, eating a meal, and going to bed. Their lives consist of wandering public areas and begging.

(Yes, yes, I'm perfectly aware of "the well-off beggar", but don't let a statistical blip blind you to the larger reality)

Why am I so interested in finding out if panhandlers are secretly living the good life, and earning more than I do working?

However "satirical" the intent, this is just fucking gross. It just feeds the brainwashing meme of "look, these guys don't have it so bad, and hey, they're perfectly capable of getting a regular job, but they CHOOSE this!" The number and nature of its panhandlers are a sad commentary on a culture.
posted by mkultra at 7:24 AM on September 6

I am that douchebag.
I'm glad that my site is triggering dialogues like this. That's the idea. I do have great sympathy for the homeless and for the majority of folks that are out panhandling. I also think a-lot of them are funny, charming people, and some of them are tragic and some of them are assholes.
I am not making fun of them, I am making fun of the pervasive Urban Legend that would have us believe that a good percentage of these folks are leading the good life. I knew this was a ridiculous idea but after hearing it repeatedly, I decided to take a humorous first hand look at it and along the way we're looking at panhandling laws, the homeless' 'lifestyle' etc. We're filming a documentary, and I think all the people who are so quick to assume I'm an asshole will actually be glad to see the results of our filming. Time will tell.
In the meanwhile, a Mummy panhandling with a sign written in hieroglyphics is funny. I don't care what you say, it is.
posted by joe beggar at 9:15 AM on September 6

I clicked on the link all prepared to be offended but then I wasn't: at least somebody bothered to find out more about it than one could learn by reading fratboy twaddle on a Metafilter thread. mkultra, did you read the site in question?
posted by davy at 11:21 AM on September 6

Yeah, I did. What "joe beggar" fails to realize, IMO, that his well-intentioned hijinks are actually fairly patronizing to those who don't really have a choice about their position, down to the "wacky costumes" and whylieineedadrink subdomain.
posted by mkultra at 2:55 PM on September 6

I know I shouldn't care, but Kyleg, why do think I'm a douchebag?
I'm doing something that I think is creative while trying to look at a subject that I care about. I may be misguided but random namecalling isn't exactly sophisticated or enlightened now is it.
I'm not asking for a flame war, and I've read why some folks are critical, I respect their views, I'm just curious as to what's behind your disdain for me.
posted by joe beggar at 3:07 PM on September 6

MK Ultra,
I interact with many panhanlders on a daily basis and have yet to find one that isn't enjoying what I'm doing.
I've been to their camps, I've recorded their stories, and I've gotten to know a-lot of them. Most of these folks who I've met possess a good sense of humor.
I don't intend to patonize them, in fact I'm more patronizing to those who practice snobbery toward them. I think that's evident in my writing.
I'm not some rich guy making fun of the poor. I've lived most of my adult life just a few steps above homelessness, in fact I've slept on many couches while "in between" homes.
With all due respect, I think you're putting a negative spin on this that has more to do with you than me or my site.
posted by joe beggar at 3:15 PM on September 6


I've lived most of my adult life just a few steps above homelessness

So you'll pardon me if I find that statement a bit at odds with this little tidbit:

I worked as an MC for a travelling film festival for a few years. The job included flyering each town we'd go to. Chicago was my least favorite. I got there straight from California and had forgotten to bring a jacket. This sucked as Chicago is one of those places that actually has four seasons including a couple of real cold ones.
I found a great corduroy blazer in a thrift shop and I loved it. I was out handing out flyers to drunk college boys that night in my lovely new coat and several of them each handed me a dollar. When a fifth person offered me a buck I asked why people were giving me money.
"Aren't you out here asking for money?"
"No. I'm here promoting for a film festival."
"Oh! Well that can't pay much."
"Dude, they rent me an apartment, a car, fly me all over the country and I make money o'plenty."


See, there's a HUGE gap between "living paycheck to paycheck" and actually being reduced to having to beg for your daily bread.

...in fact I've slept on many couches while "in between" homes.

Words fail me. Can you relate to anti-gay violence because the school bully called you "faggot" and beat you up on the playground in fourth grade?
posted by mkultra at 4:13 PM on September 6


The post you quote from my site describes a time when I worked for Spike and Mike's animation fest. When their season ended I'd go on unemployment and live in my bus for a few months until it started again. Admittedly this was a choice and quite enjoyable, but it's not contradictory with my statement that I was merely a few steps above homeless. I had no money in the bank, owned no property, and had very little security, which is how I lived throughout my twenties.
This doesn't make me able to totally relate to the homeless but it's made it hard for me to understand how folks can put themselves above the homeless and it's allowed me to be a bit more intrigued about what their situation is like than I might be otherwise.

Being beaten up and called faggot is anti-gay violence isn't it? Funny example to choose as I HAVE had the shit kicked out of me by a cop durring a gay rights march. I'm straight, but the lawyers and the Lambda center seemed to agree that I'd been gay bashed. Hmmm?

I really want to shed light on the way these folks are living and that there are more and more people in this situation. I feel that you and I are on the same side on this. I am sincerely sorry that my methods are so disagreeable to you. I am a comedian, and if my comedy doesn't have anything to do with what's going on around me, I'm a hack, when it does, people get offended. Oh well, this is for those who understand. I do hope the documentary will be less ambiguous than the blog, but I'm proud of both.
posted by joe beggar at 4:47 PM on September 6


What "joe beggar" fails to realize, IMO, that his well-intentioned hijinks are actually fairly patronizing to those who don't really have a choice about their position

Blah. Joe's experiment has nothing to do with uncovering how many panhandlers are and are not in need. His experiment doesn't test panhandlers at all, but the people who give to them.

I interact with many panhanlders on a daily basis and have yet to find one that isn't enjoying what I'm doing

There seems to be a special MeFi breed that enjoys taking offence on behalf of a subject group who really isn't bothered. Tell me again who's being patronizing?
posted by dreamsign at 4:51 PM on September 6

Thank you dreamsign. Joe, I have one word of advice for you about these sorts of dust ups on MeFi - stop. Just stop responding. You have made your case and most will see that your motives are pure. Some here see the world through funky lenses. You will never convince them of their error, you will only waste time. In its futility, it is akin to arguing Darwinism to a creationist.

You seem to have a great sense of humor and I bet the movie will be both funny and poignant. Good luck with your project and thank you for the website.
posted by caddis at 5:18 PM on September 6

hey joe, I think what you're doing is interesting and not patronising at all.

Of course, I'm more interested in why an affluent society allows begging at all.
posted by wilful at 5:28 PM on September 6

a Mummy panhandling with a sign written in hieroglyphics is funny. I don't care what you say, it is.

Yeah. Yeah it is.
posted by dejah420 at 8:23 PM on September 6


I was homeless for over a year, and I think this is pretty funny. Among the homeless, at least the ones I knew, which is admittedly a pretty self-selected group, there is a kind of sick gallows humor that is pretty pervasive. You need to have some sort of a defense mechanism when things get that stressful, and for many that mechanism was humor. So it doesn't surprise me at all that alot of the homeless he meets think this is funny. They are also some of the most friendly and interesting people I've met. When all you have left is your humanity, you tend to value it - your's as well as others' - that much higher.

Also, a few points of anecdotal clarification:
1) Sometime somewhere there was someone who made a decent living begging for "charities" and keeping the money. Great. I lived on the streets and in shelters and I saw the same people day and night. Sure, new people arrived - kids who ran away from abusive homes, drug addicts who got evicted - and old people went away, but I've never met a panhandler who commuted.
2) Yes, some of the people you see panhandling are able bodied - but that's the key word. Very, very, very often it is not their body that keeps them from working, its their mind. The incidence of mental illness among the homeless is staggeringly high and insultingly poorly addressed.
3) Yes, a good portion of the homeless people you see end up that way because of drug or alchohol abuse or the contingent effects thereof. This usually reflects a lack of available treatment options more than an actual desire to become a homeless junkie, but that's a whole other issue. The real point is that if you have a personal issue with giving cash to the homeless (as I do with a particular few "regulars") then offering food, old clothing, or even just an attentive ear is often just as welcome.
4) And finally, yes, I am forced to admit that there does indeed exist a group of self-imposed homeless for whom living "off the grid" and so forth is a lifestyle choice: the so-called "gutter punks" and their ilk. I didn't really associate with them, as they tended to be pretty insular, preffered dumpsters to soup kitchens, sidewalks to shelters, and generally making their existence as obvious as possible to the pigs whose wanton wastefulness they were living off of. They are making a political statement, which is all well and good, but it wasn't really my bag at the time. If you feel like they don't deserve your money, fine, but understand they repressent a small minority.

Regarding the criticism of Joe: I think it is a pretty universal human trait that people will respect you if you try to walk a mile in their shoes, rather than simply preach on some message board. Joe actually went out there and talked with actual homeless people to find out what their lives were actually like. Try that, and then maybe come on back. The commenters with some experience in the area - the former counselor, etc. - didn't seem to have much of a problem with it, right? It's like when you go to a foreign country: you can either yell at people in English, or you can get out your phrase book and mangle the hell out of their beautiful language. Yell in English, and you'll probably just get yelled back at in French. Try it in their native tongue first, and even if you fuck up, look like an ass, or accidentally say something insulting, most people will appreciate the effort, smile, and answer your question in English. Maybe at first Joe looked like an idiot or was mildly insulting, but that he was putting forth the effort to interact with people on their level is worth a thousand times more than simply wagging a righteously indignant finger at him from the comfort of your home office.
posted by ChasFile at 12:43 AM on September 7

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