Have you ever wondered what the panhandlers you see on the street would do if you actually gave them a bunch of money to spend? Like many people, I generally give my pocket change to anyone who asks. I figure that if they have to ask, they probably need it more than I do. (Yes, I know that there are just as many folks who think this is ridiculous, and who never give anything to folks on the street. What can I say? The empathetic J.D. almost always get his way over the logical J.D. Exception: I never give to aggressive panhandlers.)

Last weekend, the Toronto Star featured a fascinating article from Jim Rankin about a little experiment he conducted. He actually decided to give a few handlers more than just pocket change:

Over the past two weeks, I wandered Toronto’s downtown core with five prepaid Visa and MasterCard gift cards, in $50 and $75 denominations, waiting for people to ask for money.

When they did, I asked them what they needed. A meal at a restaurant, groceries, a new pair of pants, they said. I handed out the cards and asked that they give them back when they’d finished shopping. I either waited at a coffee shop while they shopped or — in the case of those who could not buy what they needed nearby or were reticent about leaving their panhandling post — I said I’d return on another day to pick up the card. That’s when I would reveal that I was a journalist.

Some were unbelieving at first. All were grateful. Some declined the offer. Some who accepted didn’t come back, but those that did had stories to tell.

As you might expect, different people did different things with the gift cards Rankin gave them.

  • With a $50 card, Jason spent $8.69 at McDonald’s before returning the card.
  • Mark used his $50 card to buy a $21.64 meal at a local restaurant and then spent $15.50 at the liquor store. He didn’t return the card.
  • Rankin gave Joanne a $75 card, which was stolen by an ex-boyfriend. He used it to spend $24.95 at McDonald’s and $38.35 at the liquor store.
  • Al took a $50 card, but never used it and never returned it.
  • With her $75 card, Laurie bought $74.61 in food, cigarettes, and telephone minutes. She returned the card.

Though there’s no real Big Message to be taken from this feature, I think it’s fascinating. Most of the time, homelessness is used to polarize people on one side or another of a political issue. But sometimes we forget that panhandlers are real people who have stories behind their predicaments. Rankin’s project was a clever way to get at some of those stories.

[Toronto Star: How panhandlers use free credit cards]