To Give or Not to Give, That's the Question Facing Straphangers

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On a nearly empty F train car hours after the morning rush, a handful of people were scattered throughout, immersed in magazines, iPods or their own thoughts when a sad song filled the train car. The singer, a stout woman with beads of sweat running down her forehead held a small piece of white cardboard that read: “I — have 3 kids. I — don’t have work. Please help.”

“This song is for my family,” explained Aphrodita Chiciou, a Romanian immigrant with a deep, raspy voice. “For pay the bills, electricity I pay everything.”  Chiciou is one of among hundreds of panhandlers and peddlers that rely on generous straphangers to get by.  She said she makes between $50 and $60 a day. Whether to give to Chiciou or other panhandlers is a decision riders must make on a regular basis.

As long as it’s not aggressive, panhandling on the street is permitted. That’s not true underground, where there’s a captive audience. Riders are reminded of this several times a day. “Ladies and gentlemen soliciting money in the subway is illegal,” an MTA announcement drones above the rumbling of the subway. “We ask you not to give. Please help us to maintain an orderly subway.”

Albert Engel was oblivious to a panhandler as he rode a downtown F train. Originally from Congo, he has lived in the city for over a decade and said he never gives on the train.  “I give to foundations and organizations, but I don’t give to individuals. I just don’t trust it,” he explained. “For all I know they could have money. They couldn’t have money. They could get a job. They could get assistance.”

Sitting across from Engel was Kenny Shevarev. He reached in his pocket and pulled out some money for a dark haired woman carrying a toddler and asking for help.  He had no doubt she was needy. Why else, he reasoned, would she be panhandling. “If she carried a child it’s probably not a good time in her life,” said Shevarev, a Russian immigrant who was on his way to work.

Several social service providers say whether to give to panhandlers is a personal decision, and there is no right or wrong.  Joel Berg, who runs the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said it’s probably the question he gets asked the most. 

“I would say definitely if it’s a supposed organization asking for money, that is illegal and that is almost always a scam,” Berg said. “But individual people asking for money, it’s really up to your conscience in each situation.”

The MTA said it frequently receives complaints about panhandling from customers. And while times are trying, the MTA notes there are other ways to help. “Poverty and hunger are vexing, stubborn problems and we urge our customers to give generously to their favorite and most trusted social service charity,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said in a written statement.

The Other Side of the Tin Can

As an E train rolled into the station at East 53rd Street, Jose from the Bronx, scanned the cars for the one with the fewest passengers because he needs space to maneuver his wheelchair. The panhandler holds a tin can on his lap and shakes it as he glides through car after car asking for help. “It’s not very easy coming out here,” he said. “Sometimes there’s nasty people on the train.”

(Photo: Jose says he resorts to panhandling when his disability check runs out. Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)

Jose said his legs were amputated when he was 3 years old because of a bone disease. He said he started panhandling when he was 13. Now 48, he rides the subway hoping for the charity of strangers only when his disability check runs out and he needs extra cash to buy food or pay for his cell phone. He didn’t want to give his full name because he said he’s not exactly proud of what he does.

“It’s embarrassing sometimes. I’ve seen fellow co-workers that I’ve been working with,” he said. “I can’t say I’m not embarrassed but then again I shouldn’t be. I’m unemployed right now.”

The panhandler said he worked for many years taking complaints about school buses for the Department of Education, but lost his job a few years ago. The Education Department confirmed his employment. Prior to that, he said he spent three years in prison in the late ‘90’s for selling crack. “But I learned my lesson and I’d rather stick to this,” he said.

Jose is keenly aware that, for a panhandler, credibility is everything. That’s why he always keeps himself well groomed and never gives speeches out of concern he won’t be believed. “You know, if I say something they might ridicule me so I don’t like to say anything,” Jose explained.

Several straphangers made the decision to give to Jose. One of them was Raj Sundaram, an American Airlines flight attendant.

“I follow my intuition. I see some people…they look strong and healthy and I don’t have the inclination,” said Sundaram, who added that his Hindu upbringing also inspired his generosity. “I see somebody with a critical medical condition, obviously I’m very inclined [to give].”

After about 2 hours, Jose collected nearly $100. He called it a day — so as not to wear out the generosity of strangers.  “People do get sick of seeing you,” he said.


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Comments [24]

Kristen from Manhattan l.e.s

The people from roam really kill me they have thief kids strapped to them and asking for money like how does that happen?!so one day I complained to a mta officer cause I was sitting with my4 month old daughter struggling but making it work!and the officer told me that that is a scam and when they do arrests them they get bailed out from a man in a nice Cadillac and the tailed them to a mansion in queens it's really sick!!!!that was on the f train

Apr. 18 2013 10:23 PM
Anna from Manhattan from Manhattan

Today, April 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm in the Manhattan uptown F train at West 4th Street there was a man playing the accordion while a little boy, between 5 and 7 years old, was begging for money. The boy was cute and people gave money, but I did not. The man was clearly endangering the welfare of a child by inducing the boy to beg instead of sending him to school. The adult could beg by himself but not use a child for such purposes. At 1:30 a boy that age should be in school. This is not Romania or Albania. There are plenty public schools in NYC.

Apr. 16 2013 08:44 PM
Mary Thompson

I panhandled when I was young because I was starving to death. I lived on the streets because I was abused at home and then in foster care. Not much else was available except stealing or having sex with strangers. I was not the only kid out there in the same boat. I give to street kids because I know what many of them go through.

Sep. 20 2012 02:01 PM
Cristina from Astoria, NY

The first woman mentioned, Aphrodita Chiciou, is a Romanian gypsy. I'd be wary of giving her money, as a lot of gypsies in Romania consider begging a job, and not something that would hurt their pride. This includes using small children to get the job done - just a way to make money.

Now, many of those asking for help probably need it. Just the fact that you're out there begging means you've come to the point that you're desperate enough to do that. But this statement probably wouldn't apply to some of these Romanian gypsies, since they weren't raised with a distaste for begging that people generally have. And, having the child there means nothing in terms of how desperate she is. It's probably part of the act.

I know in Romania, parents/adults bring the gypsy children into the towns during the day to beg for money, making it seem like the children are orphans when they're really not. We would usually give them food, but not money, since it just goes to the boss (whoever those adults are).

Sep. 19 2012 03:41 PM
Amanda Akwei from LIC

Coach on the F train is real! I give if I have money in my pocket.

Sep. 19 2012 01:23 PM

Another trick they have is when you go to donate clothes to Salvation Army or other drop off place they see your bag and try to intercept you and get you to give it to them. No way. I didn't carry the stuff all the way out there for it to end up on eBay or in some vintage clothing shop.

Sep. 19 2012 12:16 PM
Ann B. from Brooklyn

To Elle, John, & Lorenzo, thanks for weighing in on the issue of children as I believe more people need to be vocal. I want to clarify one point. I’ve seen both MEN and women bring children onto the subway to beg. One incident happened on the #4 train with a dark-haired man pushing a stroller with a blonde, toddler (a boy who was crying), folks on the train were in shock and he scurried off the train at Bowling Green. The second incident happened at West 4th street station where a woman boarded the train with a young boy who was crying. She gave him a bag of candy to quiet him. She appeared to be with a man who had a young girl next to him. The man glared at her from the subway platform while the young girl with him had a very worried look on her face. Once the subway doors shut, the woman began to beg and drag the young boy down the car. The thought crossed my mind that this woman may be a victim of abuse herself along with the child. I have two questions regarding both incidents – are these really the parents of these children? Are we dealing with issues of child trafficking and abuse/enslavement? I respect Cindy Rodriguez very much as a reporter and hope she will develop this piece and do some hard-core investigative reporting and get to the bottom of this underground activity.

Sep. 19 2012 12:13 PM
Jill from Upper West

I am skeptical of beggars' stories. I doubt kids who say they are raising money for a team. I wish very evil things on the "entertainers" who come into a subway car and start street dancing/gymnasting off the poles, putting other passengers at risk (even my best "you're car is rolling into the crosswalk" dirty look doesn't ruffle these clowns). All that said, sometimes a panhandler's presence... usually his/her physical state... induce me to hand of the fruit or granola bar or candy that is in my bag.

Sep. 19 2012 11:16 AM
Debbie from Brooklyn

Many panhandlers are emotionally unstable and I find them dangerous. Please don't give your money to them. If you want to help people in need, donate to respectable charities. Homeless people and other panhandlers will continue to beg and will continue to spread diseases on the subway, if you give them money.

Sep. 19 2012 11:09 AM
HipHopSays from Bed-Stuy

I have lived in the city for about 10 yrs and for the most part the panhandlers are not that bothersome....but then again I grew up in a city (philly)and in a neighborhood (center city) with a substantial and often belligerent/aggressive panhandling community. My parents taught me early that I don't have any space to judge those who are in need and asking for help, and likewise I should not guilt myself into giving because I have something they do not. They also encouraged me to volunteer at organizations that were better positioned to help the homeless particularly when our city council (mayor street) decided the response to panhandling downtown was to arrest the homeless and I was troubled by the policy.

As mentioned the kids thing is new but I suspect the impoverished doesn't have the luxury of being able to afford a 'babysitter' particularly if they are living in a homeless shelter. Sadly, under mayor bloomberg's tenure there are more homeless families in the, I suspect we will be seeing more and more kids in the begging mix. My firm rules are not to buy candy from kids during school time (and typically i remind them that if they go to school they'll make more in the long run), I offer food first, give to performers/buskers, give information for services to stories (and make sure to give time/$$$ to those organizations who are looking for ways to best serve those in needs)

Sep. 19 2012 10:53 AM
Lorenzo from Manhattan

I have seen the same woman for years, the kids are growing but somehow she brings a new baby she can carry in her arms. I was an undocumented resident of New York for many years until my documents finally came. All those years I managed to have a place to live, have meals, buy my clothing, I cry of rage many times because the work I had to do and like me there are many other immigrants that still are in that situation. So it is an insult this person to behave like this. If you want to help someone take the person home with you, give her or him the best of you, give her/him a jacket that you're wearing, give him/her a job, give him/her the meal you are going to just one dollar to calm your guilt.

Sep. 19 2012 10:44 AM
Jack in Hudson Valley from Hudson Valley

I lived in NYC from 1988-2009 and still visit often. I never give to people on the street or Subway, but I DO acknowledge them, as opposed to looking right through them, and often tell them that I do not give in that way, but I do give to Second Harvest and other organizations.

Sep. 19 2012 10:33 AM
Tara from NYC

It depends on whose asking. For performers I almost always give. But for homeless/addicted, after having an uncle living on the streets here in NYC for years and knowing that every cent that people gave him was used to buy more poison to put into his body (he never used the money for food)I do not give to them. I actually feel that the people that gave money to my uncle helped to contribute to his demise and I will not be part of helping someone kill themselves.

Sep. 19 2012 10:32 AM
Jane from Manhattan

Actually, what I can't stand are the people who preach to a captive audience every day. I believe in freedom of speech and all, but subways are not an appropriate forum for some kinds of speech and preaching on the train can actually be dangerous.

Sep. 19 2012 10:31 AM
Elle from Brooklyn

To Anne and John who both mentioned women with children - this has been VERY upsetting to me as well, and I have called 911 several times about it. I also photographed one woman and warned her that such actions could result in having her children taken away. Guess what? Everyone else in the car gave ME the dirty looks, not her. I agree that this is a hideous new twist, and I am more than happy to do my part in bringing it to an end, but it seems to me that more people than not are willing to let this practice continue and do nothing.

Sep. 19 2012 10:16 AM
Arthur Vincie from Astoria, NY

I will give if I have it and can afford it. You never know whether the story the person is telling is true, but does it matter? No one interrogates me about every dollar I spend. If I was in that position I'd tell whatever story I had to. Having worked for a number of nonprofits I'm skeptical as to whether they're much better at distributing resources. And you never know - that money will help get someone to the next day, and their life may very well change tomorrow. Also, I don't like the hypocrisy of people sipping Starbucks and/or downing prescription meds and then saying they don't want to give to drug addicts.

Sep. 19 2012 10:05 AM
Jill from Rye, NY

I give to individuals, especially to women and veterans. Foolish? Maybe. But I've made worse mistakes.

Sep. 19 2012 09:19 AM
john from office

The women with the babies is a new thing that started last year and seem to be organized. They are all the same ethnic group, same signs and same look. Looks like the Roma have come to new york, dont give it to them, there is some guy who is the ring leader and keeping the money.

Sep. 19 2012 09:07 AM
Ann Bischel from Brooklyn

Carrying a toddler onto a subway train to beg for money is child abuse!! This is a fairly new trend that I've been noticing within the past year or so and I am appalled by it. It is abusive to subject a child/infant to this activity. I've lived in the city for years and there is a sudden rash of people dragging children onto the subway to beg. I believe that unless New York subway riders take a strong stand on this issue - don't give money and be vocal, this type of activity will become the norm! It is not normal, it is culturally, socially, and morally unacceptable! Speak up and don't wait for the MTA, be civil but let the person who is the responsible "adult" know that what they are doing is unacceptable.

Sep. 19 2012 08:55 AM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

Although I choose to give to my favorite charities rather than directly to a panhandler, I do sometimes pull out my wallet for those who are without a doubt enduring difficult times. I couldn't live with myself if I found myself facing a person like Jose and didn't at least hand him a dollar.

Sep. 19 2012 08:54 AM
I Do Have A Heart from New York

I do not like the idea of being trapped in a moving subway car with strange potentially aggressive panhandlers. I find the singing intrusive the speeches,contrived and see through and I felt uncomfortable the last time I was in that situation! Forget the overhead announcement, they need to step up patrols on the train until the numbers decrease also, they should provide a number to call so when you exit your stop, you can call in and alert transit to the train location.

Sep. 19 2012 08:35 AM
Anonymous from Manhattan

I'm torn, I want to give BUT I don't want to be harassed!

Sep. 19 2012 08:22 AM
Brenda from New York City

I am very comfortable giving food to those asking for help. I have done so for years with one man in my neighborhood. He's a good conversationalist, an upbeat personality and a soulful quality. Engaging with him is always enjoyable. Recently he looked ill, when I asked him about it, he described a rather scary bout of pneumonia. He said he hadn't eaten for 24 hours. I asked him what would appeal to him. He answered; 'money.' I offered; oatmeal, eggs, sandwich, fruit, smoothie, soup, all to no avail. He only wanted money. I offered to come back in a bit when he might be more interested in food. "I won't be here then, I'm here now"was the response.
I felt so dejected, and like such a fool for feeling dejected. Who am I to judge how he lives or what he does with his proceeds? No one. But up until that point I had created a fantasy of someone who had a certain purity about them and relied on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps it's not such a bad fantasy. It made me happy, and it worked for him.

Sep. 19 2012 08:19 AM
john from office

I see the same people with the same story over and over again for years. So, I dont give. Also, people use the story of some organization to get you to give. These were true at one time, but now there are too many fakers.

Sep. 19 2012 07:29 AM

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