Lessons learned from a day spent panhandling

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management, LLC
April 14, 2013

Several weeks ago I was in Portland, Oregon and was overwhelmed by the number of apparently homeless people walking the streets and asking for money.

There were panhandlers at every corner, on every street. I gave a few dollars to a guy, which seemed to attract a number of other new friends.

I was intrigued watching businesspeople react to the panhandlers. I wondered what it felt like to be on the other side of the transaction.

So without giving it any forethought and feeling the safety of anonymity, I walked up to a guy in a sports coat and tie. “Sir, I’m trying to get home today and need something to eat. Can I have three dollars?”

He gave me two dollars.

In less than 45 minutes I collected 32 dollars and some change. I was wearing Nike sweatpants, a sleeveless Harvard football t-shirt, a Duke visor and a pair of hundred dollar sneakers.

In an attempt to avoid seeming threatening, I approached no women or children.

Each time I walked up to someone, I wondered what they thought of me. Or did they even think of me at all? Many people avoided looking at me, or they looked through me.

I considered giving my 32 dollars to one of the street people. Instead, I gave it to a waitress with pink hair. Although possibly heartless, I felt better giving it to someone with a job.

The experience made me wonder if the collective money we spend on the panhandler and homeless population has any real impact.

Depending on whose data you want to use, Multnomah County (Portland, OR) has a homeless population of 15,500. According to a 2011-2012 study available at the city’s website, Knoxville’s “active client” homeless population is 7,300.

Based on their tax returns, the Portland Rescue Mission has an annual budget (2011) of $8.7 million. The Knox Area Rescue Ministries 2012 budget was just over $13 million. While there can obviously be nuances between the two budgets that make them difficult to compare, there is one indisputable fact: we spend a bunch of money on just missions alone.

Whether it’s giving money to a guy on the street or funding a large service or housing organization, folks give their own money and time to help the homeless for honest and good reasons. I believe the people who gave me the $32 did so out of gratitude for their own lives or because they felt sorry for me.

But that $32 would have solved no problems, regardless of the recipient. At best it might have provided temporary relief to someone – relief that was amply available in the numerous homeless service organizations in downtown Portland.

There are multitudes of people who want to be part of a solution to the homeless problem. I have no idea what the solutions are. That afternoon in Portland I couldn’t even tell if homelessness was the problem or the result of a problem.

But I did learn there is a difference between looking at a man and seeing him.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

Click here to subscribe to MCM commentary.

MCM website