In the early summer of 2013, one of Windsor’s city councillors approached a young panhandler on Ouellette Avenue in the downtown core. He tried to patronizingly convince the panhandler to get off the street by suggesting city services that could help--assuming the panner didn't already know they existed. The young man was annoyed by the councillor’s persistence and lack of respect for his personal space and things quickly grew tense. He yelled at the city official to ‘go away’ and soon a second panhandler intervened to make sure the altercation did not turn violent.
This took place outside of the Windsor Star, Windsor’s only major newspaper. The next day, a picture of the altercation with the headline “Panhandler standoff gets tense” appeared on the front page. For the next few weeks, angry columnists and article commenters tore into the local panners calling them “street pests” and suggesting the public “starve them” so they’ll “sneak back where they came from.” The mood on the street noticeably shifted for a few months. Panhandlers I spoke to noticed an uptick in angry backlash from passersby. More columns and news articles popped up in the Star. Less money ended up in their cups.
This was the moment I realized I needed to understand panhandling as a coping strategy for extreme poverty and how popular discourses influence the people who suffer from it. What compels people to do it? What are the conditions of their lives? What barriers do they face to basic every day functioning? What are some common myths perpetuated by the general public? We see them everyday, but very few of us engage with them in any meaningful way. They are ignored and passed by. And when they’re not, they’re often met with hostility and marginalization.
In order to answer these questions and finish my fieldwork, I need your help!
Who I am:
My name is Travis Reitsma. I’m a PhD-Candidate in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at the University of Windsor. For the past four years, I’ve been working my way through the degree requirements for a doctorate in sociology. I’ve dedicated my life to social justice, starting with a Master’s degree in Communications & Social Justice from the University of Windsor where I studied the mainstream media’s coverage of public sector unions in Canada.
I have been a dedicated community activist for the last decade as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) where I organized with other workers to help raise labour standards across Windsor and Essex County. I’ve also worked with Windsor’s panhandlers in the past, consulting with them while they formed the Street Labourers’ of Windsor (SLOW) under the auspices of the IWW—one of the very first panhandler and street worker unions in the world.
What I’m doing:
In short, I’m conducting an ethnography of panhandling in Windsor. My goal is to understand panhandling as a coping mechanism for extreme poverty. Why do people choose to panhandle? What sorts of barriers do they face in their day-to-day lives? How do local institutions such as the media and city government talk about panhandlers? Do these conversations influence the lived realities of panners?
To answer these questions, I will be hanging around with panners throughout Windsor for a few months. I have already recruited about a dozen participants with whom I have nearly daily contact. With each person, I will conduct at least one hour-long ambulant interview (or walking tour) where I turn on a recorder and ask several questions while the panner continues to work. Other times, I just hang around and absorb as much as I can, retiring every hour or two to furiously scribble down field notes from the many encounters I have.
After a few months of doing this, I will organize and assemble the many hours of transcripts and endless pages of field notes to churn out a finished dissertation.
Why I need funding:
Efforts to receive funding from the university have failed. I have reached out to several local community organizations and I have received some funding from The Shelter for Women through the Windsor Homeless Coalition, but it is not enough to complete my study.
Simply put, I need funds for the cost of research:
--To gain the trust of the panning community, I need to be visible every day, which means providing change, cigarettes, food, and other items for panhandlers while I hang out with them. To this point, I’ve been paying for this out of my own pocket and I can’t afford to keep doing it.
--I need funds for interview compensation. If I’m taking time or focus away from panning, even for an hour, it could cost someone a meal, or money to pay a cell phone bill or part of their rent. I need to be able to compensate panhandlers in the form of Tim’s Cards, Burger King, McDonald’s and Starbucks gift certificates, or cash while I interview them. The cost of this will be $15 per interview. Since I plan to conduct up to 40 interviews, this could cost as much as $600.
--Other costs of research such as a high-quality voice recorder (I’m borrowing one now that works, but is not ideal for outdoor interviews), contact cards, a data processing computer program, and other day-to-day items for myself and participants.
Any unused funds at the conclusion of the study will be donated to local organizations that are dedicated to fighting poverty. More on this if we get there.
Why this study is important:
Poverty is a serious problem in Windsor, as it is in every community across Canada. Yet, so much of how people cope with it is misunderstood. This misunderstanding can lead to damaging effects on the poor from hurtful legislation, to inadequate social services that make it impossible to survive, to negative backlash from the public. This study will help render clear the cascading barriers people in poverty face and why many of them are forced to cope by participating in non-traditional ways of making ends meet. It will also give voice to a marginalized community that is often ignored by mainstream culture.
How you can help:
Donate to this campaign! Even $1 helps. If you’re uncomfortable donating online, you can always donate directly to me. If you’d rather donate gift cards or useful items, feel free to do that as well. Anything helps and everything will go to the participants and to the cost of research directly.
For more information on the study or more ways you can help out, contact me directly!