The Millionaire Panhandler 

Separating the Facts from the Myths Surrounding Panhandling

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ONE OF THE ODDER Sherlock Holmes stories revolves around panhandling. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip" (spoilers for a 122-year-old detective story ahead), Holmes finds that a man presenting himself as a well-off professional is actually a full-time beggar. Every day, the titular character would apply soot and makeup to his face, sit on the street, and beg for cash. In Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction, this man was able to live a fairly comfortable life on what he earned on the street.

Even today, the cultural archetype of the well-off panhandler (along with the equally mythical welfare queen) has lodged itself in the popular imagination. And casual observers often assume that the dirty kid flying a sign on the street corner is, in fact, raking it in.

Assumptions, though, are just that—and personal feelings are not data.

Solid data about panhandlers' income and spending patterns are hard to come by, as this isn't a population who operates on the grid. We can't go into their W-2s or look at their debit card records. We can't ask their banks, their credit unions, or the IRS about what's going on with their finances. The only people we can ask about income, spending, and hourly wages among panhandlers are the panhandlers themselves.

So that's what I did. I spent the past month personally interviewing panhandlers—asking them directly about how much they make, what they spend their money on, and how they get by. It's true that not everyone who asks for money sleeps on the streets. But here's the short version: Being a panhandler is awful work and, despite urban myth, no one actually makes that much money doing it.

That's worth remembering—especially after a summer of headlines about homelessness. In his April State of the City speech, Mayor Charlie Hales spoke of an "epidemic of panhandling and homelessness," as if the presence of disenfranchised human beings was a disease to be cured rather than a problem to be solved. Fears of aggressive panhandling, fanned by the business community, are being used to justify tougher sidewalk laws. Panhandling is an act of desperation. And if it is an epidemic, those who resort to it are the afflicted rather than the disease.

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THE SCHOLARSHIP

Very few academics or scientists have bothered with interviewing panhandlers directly. The one academic item that shows up again and again on the matter is a 2002 Toronto study of income and spending patterns among panhandlers (yes, folks, we have to resort to Canadian data for this).

"There had been news articles appearing in Toronto suggesting that panhandlers had been making extraordinary amounts of money," says Stephen Hwang, the chair of homelessness, housing, and health at Toronto's Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael's Hospital. "We wanted to see if that's the case... The bottom-line finding is that the income of people willing to speak to us was modest. Most panhandlers are not getting wealthy panhandling."

Hwang, along with his research partner, Rohit Bose, found that panhandlers in their city made (not adjusted for inflation or currency differences) about $30 a day from panhandling, and $300 a month. That's the median. While some panhandlers probably make far more or far less than that, any supposition that they're raking it in, according to the Toronto guys who've really looked at this, is just a supposition.

Decade-old Canadian data is nice, but it's insufficient for coming to conclusions about Portland's sign-flyers. Inspired by Hwang and Bose's oft-cited article, "Income and Spending Patterns Among Panhandlers," I decided to run my own survey here in Portland, interviewing panhandlers about their income, spending habits, personal lives, and careers as professional beggars.

Everyone I talked to was actively soliciting cash from pedestrians on a sidewalk, either verbally or with a sign. I didn't speak to anyone selling trinkets, busking, or doing any kind of activity that could be construed as offering something of value. I only spoke to people asking for money with the understanding that they would give nothing in the way of goods or services in return.

The interviews were conducted in late August and early September in downtown, on SE Hawthorne, and on North Mississippi during the late morning and afternoon. Participants in the survey each were given one dollar for their time, information, and cooperation. All participants were assured that they would remain anonymous, and that I would neither ask for their names nor take their picture.

Not everyone was cooperative. Several people were either unwilling or unable to speak with me. One man said that he'd talk, but as soon as he saw my clipboard and pen he yelled about how he didn't want to have anything to do with paperwork. A few said they didn't want to have anything to do with the media, anonymous or not, and one woman said she was too embarrassed to talk about it, even though I promised she'd remain anonymous. An older woman did agree to talk to me, but did not seem to comprehend any of my questions, and the conversation didn't yield any usable data.

Those were exceptions, though. The vast majority of people whom I spoke with were happy to talk about their experiences, were candid about difficult issues like drug use and jail time, and did their best to be accurate when it came to reporting how much they'd made. I never felt threatened or unsafe during our conversations. Granted, I'm a six-foot-tall white male and I acknowledge that my experience is not universal. But at no point did anyone whom I approached intimidate, threaten, or insult me. If anything, most people seemed happy to have attention paid to them.

My results (which are unscientific) seemed to be in line with what Bose and Hwang found in Toronto: No one's getting wealthy by panhandling.

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HOURS

Panhandlers, obviously, don't have to punch a clock or report to a boss. They solicit cash on their own time. However, there are only a few hours during the day when foot traffic is going to be optimal for soliciting cash, and the 50 respondents reported panhandling for an average of 5.94 hours a day, and did it, on average, for 6.24 days a week. In terms of long-term careers, the respondents had been "working" as panhandlers for an average of 4.6 years.

Several respondents mentioned that they wanted to get off the streets as soon as possible, usually because they were panhandling to pay for specific expenditures, often a hotel room.

"When I go to the hotel, that makes me feel normal," said a 50-year-old woman. Her regular routine was to get just enough to pay for her room, and then stop.

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INCOME

Respondents were asked how much they'd made in the past hour, how much they'd made during their previous day of panhandling, and how much they'd made over the past week. Responses for hourly and daily takes tended to be very precise—however, responses relating to the previous week's take were often vague estimates. The 50 respondents reported an average hourly income of $4.96, an average daily income of $21.69, and an average weekly income of $106.64.

No matter how you slice those numbers, the incomes don't add up to more than what the average worker makes. "I wish it paid like a full-time job," said a 47-year-old man who reported panhandling for seven to nine hours a day, seven days a week.

The listed income did not include gifts. A couple I talked to mentioned that they'd newly arrived in Portland from the East Coast, and that a stranger had paid their $1,200 cross-country bus fare. I saw one man accept a $5 McDonald's gift card, and one woman was given two burritos during our interview. A 22-year-old man near Pioneer Courthouse Square sat with a sign outside a sandwich shop and said that people would often exit the shop with food for him.

Thirteen respondents reported having other sources of income. Plasma donation was a popular means of secondary income, and several mentioned that they sometimes worked part-time odd jobs. One man said that he sold marijuana, and another heavily implied (but refused to specifically state) that he sold harder drugs. Thirteen of the respondents also mentioned collecting food stamps. None had any kind of regular employment.

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SPENDING

Food was far and away the most frequently reported expenditure, with 34 respondents listing it as something that they regularly spend money on. I often asked people why they spent money on food when Portland has various public and private charitable services that give it away for free. The panhandlers I talked to had a mostly negative impression of Portland's low-cost or no-cost food services.

"They're filled with crazy people," said one homeless Navy veteran, who went on at length about how he felt uncomfortable being around so many people who were dealing with mental illness.

Behind food, alcohol and tobacco were the second and third most popular things for panhandlers to spend their cash on. Fifteen respondents reported spending money on booze of one form or another, and 14 said they regularly purchased cigarettes. Shelter was also a common expenditure, with 12 of the 50 respondents listing hotel rooms, hostels, campsites, or rent as one of their main expenditures.

Only four respondents listed illicit drugs among their normal purchases, and three of those four said they only ever bought weed. Speaking of which...

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DRUGS AND ALCOHOL

Marijuana, unsurprisingly, was the most popular illicit drug among panhandlers, with 23 of the 50 respondents having acknowledged using it in the last year.

On more than one occasion, respondents had to ask about the legality of pot when I asked them if they'd used any illegal drugs in the past year.

"Is weed illegal here?" was a common refrain during the interviews and I had to mention that no, weed isn't legal here, at least not yet. "You're thinking of Washington," I said more than a few times.

Several panhandlers said people would often gift them joints or nuggets while asking for change, and one woman said that if you're paying for pot in Portland you're "stupid," because, in her experience, people just gave it to her for free on a regular-enough basis.

As for the harder stuff, heroin was the drug of choice among respondents, with 14 reporting that they'd used it in the last year, and several more admitting that they'd tried it sometime during their lifetime. Meth was a distant second, with eight respondents naming it among illicit drugs they'd used in the past 365 days. Cocaine, mushrooms, PCP, and LSD were mentioned only sporadically, with 10 respondents admitting to using hard drugs other than heroin or meth in the past year.

Thirty of the 50 respondents reported drinking during the past 365 days, but most reported it being a rare or social occurrence. Of those 30, 11 reported drinking every day, and of those 11, two mentioned that they budgeted their daily alcohol intake at two beers a day.

"There's a much higher prevalence of addiction and substance abuse among people experiencing homelessness compared to their housed counterparts," says Wayne Centrone, a public health expert at the Center for Social Innovation. "There's some fairly robust data to support the fact that people [with] under-diagnosed and under-treated substance abuse and mental health problems are more likely to make their way into the experience of homelessness. But I also feel like one night on the street can easily drive someone to drink."

Centrone added that many people who are homeless (whether they're panhandling or not) can very well be in various stages of treatment for addiction and mental health issues, and my own interviews seemed to bear that out. Two people I talked to were regular methadone users, and several more mentioned past addictions that they wanted to put behind them.

"The problem is," says Centrone, "when you're living on the street, everyone sees you."

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RACE, GENDER, AGE, AND EDUCATION

Forty-seven of the 50 people I spoke with were white, two were African American, and one was Asian American. They had an average age of 33.5, and were overwhelmingly male. Only 15 of the 50 were women. Thirty-nine of the respondents had either a high school diploma or a GED, 23 had attended college or community college at some point, and four had been to trade school. Of the 50 people I talked to, though, only four had finished college.

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JAIL TIME

Thirty-nine of the 50 respondents had seen the inside of a jail, and 13 of the 50 had been to state prison. Most of the time, the encounters with the law were related in some form to poverty and homelessness, with crimes like trespassing being the most common. Several more respondents were picked up for having drugs or drug paraphernalia, being drunk and disorderly, and assaults popped up now and then.

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HOUSING

A whopping 40 of the 50 people I talked to said they slept outside a majority of the time. The others had either low-cost housing or were able to get a hotel room on a consistent basis. A few older men I talked to mentioned that they were on waiting lists for housing, but that getting into a room and off the streets usually takes a while in Portland.

"I [always] have over 300 men on [the] waitlist," says Doreen Binder of Transition Projects, who also noted that at any given time more than 200 women are also waiting for beds.

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VETERANS

The homeless veteran flying a sign and begging for change has become something of a cultural icon. However, only seven of the panhandlers I talked to had been in the US Armed Forces or National Guard. Almost all of the homeless vets, though, were quick to mention the Veterans Affairs' backed-up bureaucracy as part of the reason they were homeless. One Navy veteran went on at length about all of the federal benefits that he was entitled to, but had not received. Another Army veteran pulled up his pant leg and showed me an ugly-looking collection of scars. "I got that in Iraq," he told me. The man said he'd received no benefits so far.

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IMPRESSIONS OF PORTLAND

Most panhandlers tended to see Portland in an unfavorable light. Several said Portland was less friendly and generous than other cities, and also cited the presence of other panhandlers as a problem.

Popular notions about Portland being too generous or too comfortable for the homeless do not seem to jibe with the discontent many panhandlers felt.

One downtown man had a sign that said, "Don't worry, I hate bums, too," and complained about how hard it was to get change with all of the other people flying a sign in the immediate vicinity. Several other panhandlers expressed resentment at buskers and performers for getting all of the attention from generous pedestrians. Others wished they could fly signs on an overpass to solicit from a larger pool of passersby, but repeatedly mentioned that that territory was usually claimed.

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CONCLUSIONS

People who resort to panhandling are poor—which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Any kind of rhetoric about how they're raking it in, how Portland is overly generous, or how one could live a comfortable life on change begged from a street corner seems to be nothing but that: rhetoric.

Based on the responses of the 50 people I talked to in Portland during the last month, panhandling does not appear to be a viable means of supporting oneself. News articles and stories of beggars making dramatically more money than working people seem, in the face of these numbers, to be either hyperbole, urban myths, or dramatic assumptions. The average person asking for money on the street makes close to nothing, is at much higher risk of getting picked up by law enforcement, probably sleeps outside, and doesn't know where their next infusion of income is coming from.

Over 100 years ago Arthur Conan Doyle assumed that people asking for money on the streets were making an absurd amount. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Sherlock Holmes takes a water and sponge to a beggar's face and finds a soft, wealthy man underneath the façade of desperation and poverty. That story was only a story, though. When you scratch the surface of people who look desperate on the streets of Portland, they are exactly as impoverished as they seem.

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