Service of Canaries in the Coalmine

June 29th, 2015

Categories: Charity, Homeless, Panhandlers

Homeless in NYC

I am seeing more beggars in my travels around NYC and increasing numbers of people sleeping on the street such as the men in the photos above and to the right. They are hard to see in these poor images taken within a few days of one another. One is tucked beneath steps in Katharine Hepburn Garden on 47th Street off First Avenue and one is on steps up the street from my office on East 45th near Second Avenue.

One panhandler who disappeared for years reemerged near Grand Central Station the other week, much plumper than her younger self but with a similar cardboard sign asking for help. Was she OK all those years or hanging out elsewhere?

I was astonished by a man in his 60s who was also begging one rush-hour outside of Grand Central. He was well groomed, wore a gray business suit, white shirt and necktie and held a sign that said he was going on job interviews and was looking for work and to please help. Who knows whether he was in trouble or a creative conman? Tragic whether he so desperately needed money that he resorted to the streets or was taking money from kind people who couldn’t afford to help but did anyway.

homeless in NYC 2To confirm my anecdotal observations I looked for statistics but was unable to come up with the number of panhandlers in NYC [or anywhere else] at any time.

I found a recent one about homelessness in a New York Daily News headline from an article by Harry Stevens and Greg B. Smith from February: “Thousands of New Yorkers living in dangerous ‘cluster units’ as homeless population tops 59,000, a record high: The homeless count represents a 10% jump during Mayor de Blasio’s first year in office.”

So that addresses why I’m seeing more people sleeping on the street, but it’s not proof of an increased number of beggars. Michael S. Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, Inc. and clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School wrote: “Contrary to common belief, panhandlers and homeless people are not necessarily one and the same. Many studies have found that only a small percentage of homeless people panhandle, and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless.” Scott’s article, “The Problem of Panhandling,” was on his organization’s website.

Editorial written by people involved with charities that help indigent citizens urge the public not to give money to panhandlers but instead to donate to legitimate organizations funded to address ways to earn legitimate income and where to get food and shelter. I’ve always heard this.

Have you noticed more panhandlers and homeless people lately where you live or work? Does this situation indicate an economy more troubled than publicized or that charities have fewer funds to help people in need or that your city or town isn’t doing its job to help the underserved?

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11 Responses to “Service of Canaries in the Coalmine”

  1. Deborah Brown Said:

    On my block (upper west side, near Central Park) we have had a homeless woman who is mentally ill for a number of years. She sweeps manically, tears open garbage bags looking for “stuff”and on the eve of garbage collection, she meticulously heaps bags of it together between cars! She whistles at a manic pitch, tries to engage people into talking to her and can be belligerent at times. Her actions have been recorded on iPhones and tablets but neither the police nor the Block Association can do anything. The reason we are told: “she is mentally ill but not harmful to herself or others.” I think this is a huge component to the homeless and panhandler problems. The City seems to be in a stalemate to do anything.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Wow. We read in the news about homeless people who turn on citizens with box cutters in city parks or push passengers on subway platforms–how can anyone tell when/if this might happen? That doesn’t mean all homeless people who live on the street are dangerous or harmless but still. [I can’t help but think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”]

    On my walk to work this morning I saw an empty pint bottle of gin in front of a homeless man. He’d covered himself with a blanket and was sitting on the marble ledge of a planter that was decorating a high end condo. On my walk to Grand Central on Friday, another person was sleeping sprawled out on the sidewalk in front of a Duane Reade window. These people may not be begging but they need help.

  3. SEPTIMIUS Said:

    it is well over fifty years ago now that, as part of my training by the government for specialized civil service work, I attended a lecture by a then renowned futurist. He told us that the biggest headache the country would have by the end of the century would be trying to figure out how to keep people busy. I never forgot what he said.

    He predicted, and he was right, that advances in automation and computer use would create a vast excess of “leisure time.” Unfortunately, while some people work as hard as ever, many have little or no work at all. Theoretically, if no one worked more than 20 hours a week, there would be enough work for everyone. The haves would have much less, and have-not’s, at least something. Eureka! The homeless and the panhandlers would be gone.

    The problem is that this kind of sharing is un-American. Our system — capitalism — is based on each of us trying to do the best we can for ourselves — the best wage, the best bargain and so forth; and to Hell with the other fellow. Get rid of capitalism and we go backwards. We are a taking, not a giving people.It would seem that there is no painless solution, pain for someone, that is.

    A few weeks back, I read a piece in the “Wall Street Journal” about how villagers in Sardinia live much longer than the rest of us. They don’t have our medicine, our gadgets, our wealth, our excesses, our crime or our nursing homes and homeless shelters, nor do they eat meat more than two, three times a month (they can’t afford it). But they do get lots of protein from beans, fiber from vegetables, and healthy stimulation from good red wine made from the Grenache grape. Most importantly, however, they live in homogeneous, closely knit communities and have mutually supportive extended families. An unfortunate relative is always cared for by someone.

    Maybe trying the Sardinian solution would solve the homeless/panhandler problem?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I take issue with your comment about Americans being ungenerous. Sure there are plenty who give to see their names on a chair, wall, building, hospital wing–and thank goodness for them or we wouldn’t have libraries, concerts etc. without them–but there are millions of others who give to causes, churches/synagogues/temples, people they’ll never meet who suffer as a result of weather-related horrors etc. while being frugal with their own budgets.

    We are so far from the Sardinian solution that while it sounds ideal, I wonder. However, I’ve seen examples of that approach. My mother died 15 years ago and she lived in a small NYC building that might have been in Sardinia. Some of her neighbors were guardian angels. One very young single mother visited her on New Years Eve. Mom was having a small gathering. This young woman and her daughter were all dressed up and my mother’s apartment was their only destination. It could have been The Pierre Hotel they seemed so happy to be there and my mom, who lived only four months more, a celebrity. Other tenants watched out for her when we were out of town. I trust that there are thousands of apartment houses still like this and communities around the US that still are. I hope so.

    I heard of a NYC building that lent a very sick woman of modest means the money for a required upgrade. When she or her beneficiaries were to sell her apartment the building would then be repaid. Remarkable.

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    The problem of homelessness is more acute than ever in the greater Boston area at least and most particularly in the central residential and commercial areas. More than ever it seems to be related to mental disorders and trauma from combat. There is clearly a large population of veterans who are in need of adequate medical assistance as well as shelter. It also cuts across all social classes!

    It is oversimplification to view homelessness as a result solely of economic opportunities or marketable skills. The rule that unless a person shows evidence that he is a danger to himself, however that may be construed, or to others seems to limit the manner in which those who most need help can be helped.

    There is more panhandling than there used to be, but it is still very narrow in scope. In recent years panhandlers may be stationed at a pharmacy or convenience store and even go through a charade of acting like doorman. There is a publication called “Spare Change” for which there seems to be very little demand which indigent people are given to sell on the street. This seems a fairly fruitless and even demeaning task.

    At a recent hearing at Boston City Hall to discuss a permanent homage to former Mayor of Boston and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Raymond L. Flynn, I was surprised to learn that as Mayor, Flynn devoted great time and energy to the numbers and problems of the homeless. Some attention should be given to this aspect of his work.

    I do think that not all religious charities or groups offer realistic options for assistance. Some established agencies do not understand or offer any kind of crisis intervention or emergency health or shelter care or counseling, but rather long range assistance that requires sophisticated judgment and planning. That seems to be inexcusable and unintelligent behavior. We are living in an age of anxiety, with economic, social and political instability, and really no one can afford to not be aware of the problem of homelessness or those urgently in need of assistance.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’ve not recently seen panhandlers hold doors for people but I used to. They stood outside of ATM machines or in front of drug stores, places people had cash or change. These must not be good spots anymore. However outside Grand Central is prime.

    I THINK that charities in this field have become like the world of medicine: Specialized. Some offer shelter; some training; some address addiction; some provide food; some counseling; some clothing; some furnishings etc. Whether sick or poor/homeless a person needs a generalist to help tie it all together.

    As for former city Mayors, I am still grateful to Mayor Giuliani who cleaned up the city in many ways. At the time I lived in Brooklyn and exited the subway at the Clark Street station. I would walk over bodies lined up sleeping on cardboard to get to the street. It was the period of the squeegee car window washer. If alone in the car without change or small bills, a driver could feel threatened if stopped at a light. I hope we are not heading in that direction again. I don’t know whether Giuliani provided shelter for these poor souls. But they were gone and the window washers also.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    The question which needs to be answered before making a responsible comment is: Have the number of homeless and beggars grown, or have these folks simply become more visible? Now that it’s summer, many may escape the dangers and unpleasantness of shelters, which inflates street population.

    Some 40 years ago, New York City rents were considered reasonable in sharp contrast to todays rates. This, worsened by loss of jobs/rent controlled apartments, may well account for an increased number of sidewalk dwellers. Affordable housing is not affordable without some sort of income, not to speak of availability.

    Not noticing an increase of street population means nothing since I haven’t looked and walk too fast to be easily approached. However, the possibility of more homelessness is not a good sign. The cost of housing is a growing problem which, if not seriously addressed, may well result in many of us joining the army on the street.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The homeless population in NYC is up 10 percent. I could find no statistics about panhandlers in any city.

    I thought about it being summer and how sleeping in a street in a safe neighborhood would be more comfortable than what I hear it’s like in homeless shelters. I wrote about the topic to see what others have observed–as I’ve noticed more people in a bad way than in prior summers, anecdotal at best.

    The cost of shelter is appalling as is food. Last week a chain grocery store–nothing fancy–in Dutchess County charged $1.99 for a quart of milk–MORE than what I pay in Manhattan. A homeless person can’t drive or pay for transportation to places with better prices. They also have nowhere to store food that’s on sale.

  9. CG Said:

    Like Jeanne, I clearly recall what the city was like pre-Giuliani, and that I had to walk around sleeping people sprawled on the sidewalks every morning on my way to work. I refused to give money to them because there was no way to know whether my generosity might fund their alcoholic or drug habits. I was more inclined to buy them a sandwich than give them cash. If you want to help the less fortunate and be assured that your donations are being used properly, check out It’s an independent not-for-profit corporation that evaluates charities in the U.S. A truly excellent organization.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    In addition to not knowing whether you’re feeding a habit rather than a person down on his/her luck, the average person would soon run out of funds to cover their own shelter, food and necessities if they tried to help every person they see in need on the street and in subways and train stations.

    Thank you for the link to

  11. Deborah Brown Said:

    Think you struck a nerve, Jeanne…maybe more to come in future blogs?

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