‘Anything Helps’: A Look at Panhandling at the Tacoma Film Festival

While flipping through the cornucopia of cinematic delights featured in the Tacoma Film Festival program, one in particular caught my eye: “Cardboard,” a documentary about panhandling with cardboard signs in Seattle.

In my younger days, I had a policy to always give a panhandler a dollar when I had one. Then, after being accosted by a particularly angry postcard saleslady on the streets of Chicago, hearing an NPR report on how lucrative panhandling can be, and learning a rumor about how panhandlers in Key West can earn more in a day than a bartender, I decided to just unilaterally tell panhandlers that I don’t carry cash.

The director of “Cardboard,” Matt Longmire, recorded the stories of Seattle panhandlers and interviewed various influential individuals from Seattle and Tacoma who work to provide services for the homeless and disenfranchised.

What I learned from the film is to not automatically assume things about panhandlers. No, not all panhandlers are homeless, but quite a few are. Panhandlers who have housing might not be in what most would call a stable living situation. Those who have comfortable living situations should ask themselves what circumstances would cause us to spend the day begging on the street.

Some of the cardboard sign holders interviewed were honest about drug and alcohol use. One said he was just out to get away from methamphetamines.

The documentary suggested that those who don’t want to give panhandlers cash could offer items that could be purchased at a dollar store like a toothbrush, first aid kit, deodorant, or bottled water.

One feature of the film was about a proposed anti-panhandling measure set to go up in Seattle, based on one from Tacoma. A few people felt that that measure went too far, including Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who was interviewed in the documentary.

As an example, Founding Director of Real Change News said in the documentary that the measure would “give law enforcement the tools to sweep away the ugliness of economic disparity.” Opponents of the bill shown in the documentary felt that given Seattle’s higher amount of disenfranchised panhandlers, a strict measure might do more harm than good.

Finally, the documentary challenged viewers with the question of what it would take to end homelessness, and where would we as a society go from that point.

After seeing the film, I find my views on panhandling are once again changed. I’ll probably be more likely to cough up a dollar if I have one to give.

More information about “Cardboard” and the interviewees featured in it can be found on the film’s website at cardboardmovie.com. The documentary was shown at the Tacoma Art Museum with the short, “The Megaphone Effect,” a 14-minute film that can be viewed on YouTube.

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