Panhandling

A common method of survival on the street is panhandling, or begging for money. There are few anthropological studies on begging, which is perhaps surprising given the attention of anthropologists to life on the streets. An early and excellent study of begging in Chiapas, Mexico, was conducted by Horacio Fabrega, a psychiatrist and anthropologist (Fabrega, 1971).

Fabrega studied the phenomenon of begging in San Cristóbal by means of participant observation, interviews, gathering life histories, and, in some cases, performing medical evaluations on over 80 beggars. There appeared to be a relationship between a person's physical disability and his characteristic manner of asking for alms. The people with obvious physical disabilities needed only to sit or stand next to the doorway of a church, with hand extended or a plate next to them. Those without an obvious disability had to do more to convince a potential donor of their need for charity.

Twenty-five years after the San Cristóbal study, Williams (1995) sought to observe begging in two U.S. cities, New York and Tucson, Arizona. Her mission was not to conduct a systematic study, but rather to become a more informed "fellow citizen" in a society where panhandling is no longer confined to skid row. Williams described three types of beggars: the "character beggars" who impressed listeners with their stories and personalities; the "brother-can-you-spare-a-dime" beggars, whose interactions with fellow urbanites were brief and whose stories were minimal; and the "will-work-for-food beggars." As in Fabrega's observations, beggars underlined their lack of any alternatives, had an obvious disability (though not necessarily a permanent one), and invoked God in their expression of gratitude.

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