General Sep 25, 2013 at 4:00 am

Separating the Facts from the Myths Surrounding Panhandling


Joe, this is a great, well-researched article, thanks so much for taking it on. One thing: I was left wondering about how those who worked high-vehicle-traffic spots did.

This is probably the wrong takeaway, but I was struck (read: depressed) by, "The 50 respondents reported an average hourly income of $4.96." That made me wonder what minimum wage nets out at, after taxes and the costs of being employed (e.g. transportation, work clothes, etc). Sadly, it can't be a hell of a lot over $5.
Thank you for this article. The truths of homelessness do not seem to reach privileged eyes and ears often enough. My favorite line of yours is "if it is an epidemic, those who resort to it are the afflicted rather than the disease."
@Commenty Colin - I was wondering about the on-ramp panhandlers myself. For someone who doesn't spend a lot of time downtown, most of my encounters with panhandlers are those who sit in high auto-traffic areas.
The whole article sadly is baseless from this sentence: "Solid data about panhandlers' income and spending patterns are hard to come by".

The author didn't do their research if they think there is no data out there.
Do the social sciences not even exist for the author??
Does the author even have any schooling in ethnography?

Congrats Mercury, you have justified your existence for a bit longer yet.
This is a fine example of professional journalism. Next, I'd like to read your report on end user love grass dealers.
Honestly, I am beyond even being angry at lazy dope fiends anymore. I do wonder what might have been if they gave a shit about their own future, instead of their next score.
So glad you've moved beyond being angry, congratulations!
K.D. - Can you please site where I could find this data. I would be interested in seeing a more fleshed out report on this problem, but I don't know where to look.
Great story.
The homeless population of portland is kinda like the whales of Puget Sound: there's the residents, and then there's the transients. I think (at least in Portland) when people articulate resentment and suspicions of wealth they are primarily talking about the transient population, which does contain some trustafarians having an adventure who could easily call mom and dad if need be. While you mention the average age, you don't mention the youngest people you spoke to, making it unclear what kind of survey sample you were working with, exactly. The responses seem to indicate that you spoke mostly to older people. There's also no mention if you spoke with any Street Roots vendors (and how much they make) or data presented about what the average busker takes in. But, most importantly, the statement about this data being hard to find it absurd. A simple google search for "average homeless income" results in an article that also quotes the Toronto research, with an introduction that bares a striking resemblance to this one. The original article is from 2006.
And yet the concluding paragraph of the referenced article states: "In short, it's pretty hard to get good data on the issue."
Yes, it does. Perhaps the author of this article just copied that line, too.
When I first moved to Portland, I used to make an effort to give a bit of food to the unfortunate on the sidewalks. I live downtown, so I recognize many of the "regulars." One day, I saw the pitiful old lady who seems half blind and leans on a walker near Powell's with a full shopping cart in Whole Foods - and getting around much better than I thought she could. Another day I saw her get into a cab. Not to mention the numerous times I have seen one of them pull a smart phone out of their pockets. These are not urban legends - I have seen them with my own eyes. I have plenty of friends who can't afford a smart phone, or a cab, or to shop in Whole Foods, so I am afraid much of my generosity toward the panhandlers has dried up. Now I prefer to volunteer at the Oregon Food Bank, or donate blankets to the youth and domestic abuse shelters. Hopefully these efforts can help someone who is struggling to get back on their feet. The panhandlers seem quite capable of fending for themselves.
"And yet the concluding paragraph of the referenced article states: 'In short, it's pretty hard to get good data on the issue.'"

This is very decontextualized. Your disagreement with Amanda is clearly designed to make her appear wrong. She is not wrong. This Mercury article is indeed poor research, and numerous social science researchers have, in fact, interviewed homeless people, including panhandlers. There is also definitely much data, as good as it gets anyway without doing large population longitudinal studies (a veritable impossibility with homeless people and panhandling), on panhandling income.

Her main point seems to have been based on the fact that even the most amateur Googler could quickly find the source used in the Mercury article. Further, she suggests that it is very unlikely that the Mercury writer did not use the same article she found through such a method due to its similarity with the Sherlock Holmes introduction. Based on her comment, I would guess she thinks that the article she cited is poor research as well, because it is. Her overall message then, as I read it, is that this was lazy research based on one lame article that appears right away from a simple Google search and that it hardly qualifies as research, and I agree. This all seems to have gone over your head.

BTW, it wouldn't have been so bad had the author not taken such an authoritative academic stance. His work clearly does not hold up to the stance he has taken, and anyone who thinks this work cuts it academically is obviously ignorant of how social science knowledge is constructed.
As to the posts mentioning the 2006 article in The Straight Dope and its pretty obvious similarities, the assumption has been that this writer, Joe Streckert, copied the 2006 article. There is another assumption that could be made, that he also authored the 2006 article (he clearly writes for other publications and sites). It is a very good question being that if he had no hand in the 2006 article his writing would,sadly, border on plagiarism (if not technically, then ethically) and would at least qualify as lazy as stated in previous comments. It made me curious, but I cannot verify either assumption.
Second, the author never makes a claim that his survey or collected data is anything but casual and very general so the critiques regarding methodology and accuracy of his data set and collection are excessive and off base. And, despite data being available regarding panhandling income, the data varies widely from study to study and city to city (as might be expected.) This article is a good generalized view of panhandling in Portland--it accomplishes it target providing readers with a basic idea as to the issues and reality of panhandling in Portland.
I think it would have been worth it to contact a sociology professor at PSU or Reed or Lewis and Clark for insight as to research previously conducted on this subject. Any one of these colleges would have also offered insight as to difficulties in collecting a survey sample, and would have provided a quote (an original one) that could have been used in this article regarding the difficulties in gathering this data. He could have also contacted any of a number of area nonprofits (such as Outside In) to compare his own research to theirs, as each of these nonprofits must have evaluation plans so that they can report to grantmakers. This article would have been spared the level of scrutiny it's (rightly) receiving if it wasn't peppered with smug, false statements such as: "very few academics or scientists have bothered with interviewing panhandlers directly." And I don't know how others define plagiarism, but I grade papers for a living, and if the very first link in a basic google search resulted in an article that began and ended the exact same way as the student's article, and contained cited research that mirrors the only research mentioned (though it was a bit more timely in 2006 than it is now) I'd consider it plagiarism.
Having been a transient homeless person in Portland (more specifically, a dirty kid in Portland), I can say most assuredly people are not generous in Portland. Anywhere you go. Some of the best spots still only yield $60 on the best day, panhandling for 10+ hours (both sidewalk and off-ramp). It's true that it's really pretty much impossible to determine an accurate portrayal of homeless "income" as some cities love travelers and consistently give us $20 bills and others (read: every single city on the west coast) are liable to give you closer to $0.36. And that again depends on the day, the weather, the people who drive or walk past you, et cetera. I've been in some cities and towns where one day, I'll make $120 in under 3 hours, and then not make another $10 for the next 4 days. It's not really quantifiable. It isn't even really understandable unless you're actually out there and know the city, the places to fly, the ways people respond to your signs, the days people are more likely to give you cash, so on and so forth. Even if you are making 80-100 dollars a day, you have no bank account, you have no reasonable way to save money; you probably want to rent a hotel room, watch some T.V., take a 4 hour shower and drink some decent whiskey.
Y'all can be as academic as you want about it, but you're still ultimately clueless to the reality of homelessness. No sass, just saying, sociology degrees only take you so far.
I've heard a few urban myths about what panhandlers make. I've always assumed they've made somewhere between minimum wage and maybe above on a good day if they were dedicated. What peeves me most is lots of people work crummy jobs and get paid close to nothing. I've been there in this recession. Did I like getting debased by working a job that was pointless? Hell no, but I and other people did it anyway.

Granted, there's probably barriers to these people not working like substance abuse or mental illness or past convictions, but a sizeable portion of them could turn the corner if they were held to task.

I don't care what a panhandler makes, what I and others care about is there is a panhandler on every corner. We are offering a terrible face to tourists, potential businesses, and of course to our own damn residents who want to enjoy the city without being asked for change on every block.
I actually enjoyed the article, criticisms notwithstanding (not to mention they seem to miss the author's genuinely humane tone, which I found refreshing given all the heat surrounding the debate over how we treat the homeless in Portland). I sporadically spent time on the streets as a hitchhiker when I was younger and can understand some of what these folks have experienced. I always try to be kind to panhandlers, but must admit some in Portland can drive me nuts. Large aggressive males are scary, plain and simple, and I've seen more than a few in Portland who genuinely scare women when they get too close for comfort. I also have to chuckle a bit at the idea that buskers are taking money from the public that somehow should go to panhandlers -- I've busked in many cities and Portland ain't all that generous to any street musicians unless they're in a large group like All the Apparatus or some of the more theatrical street musicians I've seen. And maybe that's the point -- the public, which is often broke, responds to people who make an effort to give not simply take. I'm not condemning people who feel they have nothing to "give" to those from whom they beg, but it's only natural in a world where every second people are besieged with pleas for their money, from businesses and churches, not-for-profits and charities, that panhandlers tend to be low on the list of priorities for a lot of folks. Homelessness is a complex, case by case issue -- it runs from those who don't deserve to be on the street to those who do to a lot of folks who are somewhere in between. I remember an elderly gentleman who would come down at closing time to a bar I frequented. the kindly manager would let him clean up the outdoor tables at night before giving him a few bucks or a meal. Some nights she simply didn't have enough cash to help him, but he'd still lend a hand if he could -- they established a cordial relationship over time and sort of even became friends. The reason a lot of panhandlers struggle is they don't have such relationships, and it's hard to establish one in the split second you try to catch a stranger's eye. I think there are a lot of answers to this "problem" but the first thing to do is for everyone to stop blaming each other for why it's happened and talk to each other first. I'm glad this writer did, he made me think a lot about the people I pass, the ones I give a little change to and the ones I don't.
I work at Powell's City of Books and spend a lot of time traversing the adjacent blocks, and I get hit up for cash INCESSANTLY. Just today while waiting for my lunch at the food carts on SW 10th, I was asked for money three times by three different people in the span of five minutes. It was astounding for lack of a better word. I've definitely noticed an uptick in panhandling in general, but there are days when it feels like every third person on the sidewalk wants something from me. In my estimation, the problem is out of control. If it weren't for my job, I would seldom if ever go downtown. Don't get me wrong; I have empathy for people on the street, but it's easy to feel overwhelmed to the point of indifference. I'm not sure what the solution is, but nonetheless it's good to see a conversation happening around this issue.
I would concur with Amanda Sledz and others who point out that this "research" is smug, poorly-referenced trash. Nothing is clarified here, no insights given. At least we know, as Mercury employee, that this author's heroic research jaunts weren't well-compensated.

In fact, I would agree this is plagiarism unless 2006 straight dope article author is the same person...

And "the cultural archetype of the well-off panhandler (along with the equally mythical welfare queen) has lodged itself in the popular imagination"-- who do you hang out with? I would guess that at least 80% of portlanders have moved beyond this stereotype sir...tilting at windmills, senor.

Why the Mercury takes on these issues in the presumed interest of furthering the conversation-- but does so in such a half-assed, uncritical, and poorly directed way-- is beyond me. This probably should have gone under I,Anonymous. Stick to your Hump festival, or whatever.
I tell those bums if I wanted to hear a commercial I'd stay home and watch TV.
@ catsunicorns:

You "can most assuredly [say that] people are not generous in Portland" because "some of the best spots still only yield $60 on the best day"? Yeah, what a bunch of jerks -- $60 for sitting on your ass with your hand out is such a rip-off. Way more people should just give away way more of their hard-earned money to anyone who asks, every time. And if they don't (or if they have the audacity to only give spare change), they're simply "not generous". Right?

You're the type of asshole who accepts a sandwich from somebody and then bitches about them under your breath because they didn't give you two of them. Ungrateful fucks like you make it that much harder for those that genuinely appreciate every dime they are given. People reading comments like yours now have another reason to believe that their generosity (whether you acknowledge it as being such or not) often goes unappreciated and, more times than not, is an act of futility, only helping in getting somebody sauced on whiskey. Good to know that i wasn't being generous all those times i ever gave somebody anything less than $20.
So i reread my above comment a couple of hours later and now think that perhaps i was overly focused on a couple of quotes that you (catsunicorn) might've accidentally left a few important qualifiers out of (like the words "most", or "relatively", etc.).

You're probably (hopefully) not nearly as ungrateful or as much of an asshole as i made you out to be. But, man, you just come off as if you think the general population is less decent in certain cities, or whatever, because one can't make a good living panhandling there; as if panhandling is just as legitimate and deserving-of-pay as any other form of 'employment'. It's not. And while it's a good thing that many of us feel compelled to help out (myself included, despite the fact that i'm making less than half of what i used to make, now hovering just a couple of bucks over minimum wage) when we can by giving money to beggars and charities, it still should be seen and utilized as simply that: HELPING OUT. Not subsidizing. Not perpetuating.

Expecting people to consistently pay your way (especially when you are capable, mentally and physically, of standing on your own two feet), and then judging them when they don't play ball, is simply wrong and inconsiderate and lazy.
Human in Training- Dude don't apologize for shit. If they can accept the fact that they live as fucking beggars then they can accept the fact that people won't give them anything.

Seattle is the goddamn WORST when it comes to this kind of thing. "Gimme five dollars" is the standard greeting from their beggars, and it's never asked politely.
If you really want to know how much a panhandler makes in a day, ask a bank teller working near a panhandling hot spot. $60-$90 per day, same people trading ones for twenties.
I quite appreciated this article, no matter my stance on homeless populations. The random sampling survey Mr. Streckert performed provided answers to questions we all have in Portland. I agree that the anecdotal research on persons experiencing homelessness is hard to come by and academics depend on someone else to do the leg work and start the conversation, which is exactly what Mr. Streckert has done. Is this the magna carta on Portland panhandlers, no, but if you find flaw in the instrument then please feel free and spend countless hours on the street attempting to interview panhandlers. I suggest bringing a rain coat and leaving your judgements at home.
Hi Amanda,

I wouldn't normally wade into the comments on a story I've done, but you've accused me of the worst thing a writer can do, and this warrants a response. Plagiarism is taking someone else's work and presenting it as your own. That is not at all what's happened here, and I hope I can clear a few things up.

I interviewed a number of academics for this piece who were not able to give me any kind of usable data or citations, and was introduced to Bose and Hwang's study by Wanyne Centrone, whom I quoted in the article. Centrone introduced me to Stephen Hwang via email, and we were able to set up a phone interview. Hwang was highly interesting to talk to, and told me that he knew of no other studies that did what he and his research partner did.

The fact is, any journalist who wants investigate panhandling is going to reference Rohit and Bose because they're the only ones who have seriously investigated the matter. That's not plagiarism at all. That's two different writers investigating something and finding the same information, which is especially likely to happen in a field as understudied as this.

As for the Sherlock Holmes reference, that's something that would come to mind to many people who started thinking about this issue. Just like lots of precocious high school boys, I read every single one of the Sherlock Holmes stories growing up, and have revisited them as an adult. I'm hardly the only person who's done this- they're kind of popular, after all. Plenty of writers reference popular culture as a way to contextualize their work, and The Man With the Twisted Lip is probably the most well-known bit of fiction concerning panhandling. Just like science writers who constantly (and independently of each other) mention Star Trek, it looks like I and another guy both mentioned that Sherlock Holmes story. And why wouldn't we? Can you think of any other works of pop culture all about panhandling? I can't. That's not plagiarism. That's just having a similar cultural background.

Regarding buskers, they are not panhandlers. They are buskers. Conflating the two groups would not have yielded anything of insight. I hope this helps clarify things.
I had a shithead get in my face at 4am in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, saying, "This isn't like New Orleans or nothing, but ..." That's when I side stepped him and broke his fucking leg off at the knee, with a side kick. I guess that never happened to him in the French Quarter.
I appreciate your efforts to clear things up. It's challenging for me to visualize a team of high school boys engaged in a circle jerk over Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in between bong hits and comic swapping, but I also haven't met many high school boys that would call to mind the word "precocious," so maybe you're a special case. Still: did you not conduct a basic Google search before writing this article? It's the *very first* article that appears on the subject matter. And if you did read this article, and decided that you could both reasonably use the same Sherlock framework and other references without worry of plagiarism accusations, why didn't you cite the original article?

In other words: while there might be 1000 articles in a thousand science magazines that make reference to Star Trek, they are probably not the exact same Star Trek reference on the exact same subject matter (without citation), and few would be so bold to assert that there's no available information on space travel.

Much of this could be avoided by simply not making statements like "Very few academics or scientists have bothered with interviewing panhandlers directly" unless you can provide a direct, credible source for such statements. I don't find someone who hasn't mastered The Google to be credible source for insight about what the whole academic and scientific communities "have bothered" to do.

More results from my Google search:
A thorough, interesting, and personal Chicago blog from 2010 where multiple panhandlers are interviewed, and various sources are used to provide statistics, context, and insight:

The book "Antisocial Patterns of Begging and Beggars" which lists a number of studies, including the Toronto research, and is available in part through Google Books

A PopCenter article that cites research for nearly every line of text:

Those interested in the full Toronto Research, just for the sake of nerdery:

Not exactly on topic, but nonetheless interesting article in the SFGate on marketing strategies for panhandlers:

Penn State academic research that references two national surveys

Arizona State University research on panhandler demographics, including income

I brought up Buskers because you made a point of quoting an individual who identified Buskers as a source of competition. To me, that would warrant follow-up question to at least one busker, asking if they perceived themselves to be in competition for the same small pool of dollars.

As far as pop culture references to panhandling, come on. GOOGLE SOMETHING. This is just lazy. Here's a place to start: Mark Twain.
One last thing: I spent the time writing (and posting) all of this not to announce what a terrible journalist I think you are, or to make you feel badly about your work. Investigative journalism has always been incredibly important, a tool for providing valuable insight about a pressing issue to the general public. I hope you will perceive this criticism as encouragement to um...sharpen your tool, and not discouragement.
Half the professors at Portland State University are actually pretty good.
There actually are millionaire panhandlers - their names are Homer Williams and Sohrab Vossoughi of Ziba.

They're the ones who want public money to make them rich, but don't want homeless people in their precious, precious bubble of a neighborhood called the Pearl.

It goes a little deeper than that. The structure of your article is identical to the SD one. It looks like you just rewrote theirs.
Buskerers are musicians. Some of them are better than others. Back in the day, in the big City, you could often times hear some pretty good ones. On the other hand, food cart venders are cheaters taking up sidewalk space from buskerers and beggars. They compete unfairly with real restaurants that have to comply with sanitation standards. Pan handlers are salesmen, like Streets Roots distributors ought to be instead of begging.
Hi again Amanda,

My mission was to investigate the economics and demographics among panhandlers, and to that end I found the most oft-cited research on the matter, spoke with one of the coauthors, and then went into the field and conducted and independent study. I also read up on several different aspects of homelessness, and that did indeed include using Google.

The articles you cite (some of which I had read prior to writing this article) present panhandlers as obstacles to be negotiated or problems for law enforcement to deal with, particular the in the (very interesting) DoJ publication referenced by PopCenter. The 1992 study is good, but it is also from over twenty years ago and is less current than Bose and Hwang. I was aware of it, but again: it's from 1992. Bose and Hwang are more recent, hence I reference them and talked to one of them. (I said that "very few" academics have delved into this field, not "none.")

For what it's worth, there has been good qualitative, non-survey research into this. If you want to read a good book about life on the street in New York City, I highly recommend Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier, which I read for background info while researching this. It's not just about panhandlers, but it is a fascinating bit of sociology.

This is all beside the point, though.

What I wanted to get with this piece was specific numbers on a marginalized population in Portland in particular, and I used the most current and oft-cited piece of scholarship as a jumping off point for my own original research. And I'd really like to reiterate that this piece isn't about Bose and Hwang's work, it's not about a Sherlock Holmes story, and it's not about any other article that you might link to.

This is a snapshot of fifty people in Portland who ask for money on the street, and a distillation of their answers to me. What I've done here is original research of a particular time and place that I hope, in some form or fashion, helps clarify the larger issue. I do not want to be the only person who writes about, thinks about, or investigates this matter. I really do want to be just one journalist who's helped contribute to the bigger picture, and I think, by doing fifty on the street interviews that I did precisely that. In ten years (or even sooner) I hope someone else does what I did and gets updated numbers. At some point this article will be out of date and it will be up to someone else to hit the streets and do what I did. When that happens, I'll welcome their efforts.

I hope that this helps to clarify matters further.
I can tell you that I view most panhandlers with hostility because as someone who collects bottles and cans I actually DO SOMETHING for my money, not sit on my ass begging. Sure, there's people who are disabled or suffer from chronic pain, and I have nothing against them at all (even sitting or standing for hours can be taxing, in its own way, so I feel for them!); but, those Road Warrior punks and other able-bodied folk are an affront the the value of money in terms of the work people have to do to collect their paychecks, and is indicative of a shamelessly self-centered attitude.

I know they don't make as much as ultra-conservatives accuse them of making, but I distinctly recall them making more than I did when I tried selling Street Roots a few years ago. What's up, Portland? You'd rather throw your money into a garbage can of entitlement complex, instead of paying for a good or service? I can count on both hands how many jobs I tried to hold and lost when I was on the streets, while these jerks were playing for chumps fools befuddled by Kerouac romanticism and skewed priorities. Apparently these people are too good to eat dinner at the Rescue Mission, or line up at Labor Ready early in the morning.

Well, they aren't getting any of my money. Try averaging between $1.25 and $2.75 an hour collecting bottles and cans! That's right, not sitting on my ass.
Perhaps this is a case of perspective; less generous than other cities? If I take a walk around the waterfront trail and gave ever panhandler $1, I'd be out $100 dollars before even finishing my 3 mile walk back to the car. And I am not kidding here. This city is initiated with panhandlers. So perhaps this is more a case of supply and demand than the perception of generosity. I'm a recent Seattle transplant (about 2 years ago), and I have never seen a city (except maybe Memphis) with a higher per capita of homeless rate. But the fact that gets me is their brashness; telling me to go to the bank, cat calling the joggers going by, living under as internment camps under every single bridge cranny, and coming up to my children like a long lost aunt while tripped out on meth/heroin. Portland doesn't even own it's Chinatown.

As for race, not sure the importance here. Portland is a white city. If anything this shows how it is still slightly skewed to the minorities in relation to the general population.

I wish this were an editorial piece, at least maybe some longer blurbs at the end. Taken as is, it really doesn't mean much as this is pretty transparent knowledge.
And lastly, I am always curious how come we never ask them what they want to fix the issue (to get them on their feet). We as taxpayers are always looking for solutions to address the problem (though that wasn't touched here), but we should be asking them for solutions, and not telling them solutions. This seemed like a good opportunity to have asked these types of questions and it was missed. We need questions with purpose, not just fact-bucket gathering. As a society we take the stance of we know best, rather than asking what is best and that is a real shame.
The problem is just the same as with pigeons. If you feed one, soon the entire flock shows up. People in Portland are too nice. Free food at the mission is the humane thing to do. Sleeping in doorways is just fucking fine. More showers and latter hours in public restrooms would be an improvement, but stop handing out cash, and the bums will get tired of asking.
Wouldn't it be interesting to hear what the average beggar thinks would be a reasonable amount for the average passerby to hand out, and how many hand outs the average passerby ought reasonably hand out each day?
I remember back in grade school, there was this kid saying how his brother would blow his nose on a dollar bill then toss it to the bums and watch them fight over it.

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