How much do panhandlers really make? Can you possibly make a living at this? How much of a difference does a funny sign make? Will people give to a guy in a banana suit? Does every sign have to say "God Bless?" Important questions. I aim to find the answers. Give me a dollar. God Bless.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


So, I hopped on my bike and rode to our carefully selected spot right outside the downtown plaza. The Plaza buts right up to the old K Street Mall, a pedestrian only strip that is struggling to between venues like Pyramid Brewery and little hole in wall Chinese gift shops, used furniture stores and other low rent type locals. The best in-between spots are The Crest Theatre and Records. Records is the Record Store on the cover of DJ Shadow's first album. It's an amazing place where I do most of my vinyl shopping in town.

We got just what we wanted by hanging out in such a spot. We interviewed a great cross section of people: upper middle class senior citizen tourtists, hobo/hound riding/hitch hiking homeless camper types, hipsters, Mexican tourists, even a skindhead.

We asked four basic questions:

Do You Give to Panhandlers?

Have you ever Panhandled?

Do you believe that there are panhandlers who work their 8 hour shift and then go home to a nice house and clean sheets? (if so, how do they do it? and do you think it's common or the exception to the rule?)

Should Panhandling be protected as free speech?

What a wild batch of answers. Almost everyone believed in the panhandler going home to a nice house. Everyone seemed to know someone who had seen it first hand. I will answer these questions myself here, and I'd love it if you could hit the comment button and give me your answers. Thanks,

My Answers.
Do You Give to Panhandlers? Yes. I do feel that some of the time it's enabling folks with addictive habits and I try to give to groups that provide real help (Mustard Seed School, Food Not Bombs) but I also think there are times when a body really does just need a bit to eat and a cup of coffee to warm themselves.

Have you ever Panhandled? Yeah. Mostly just because I was a curious punk rock kid exploring my world. Once in Seattle I really desperately needed to get a bus to Vancouver. Lately I do it as part of this here project.

Do you believe that there are panhandlers who work their 8 hour shift and then go home to a nice house and clean sheets? (if so, how do they do it? and do you think it's common or the exception to the rule?) Probably. But very rare, and in the cases where people think they've witnessed this there's probably a good explaination. A guy might live in a nice house because someone there has taken pitty on him and let him have a room to sleep in, but that doesn't mean he has the rest of what you need to survive? Or the house may have been inherited by someone with mental problems, alcohol issues, or whatever and they just live as they've always lived. I find it unlikely that anyone makes enough at panhandling to afford a lavish lifestyle. It's damn hard to make good money at this.

Should Panhandling be protected as free speech? Absolutely. The argument that some panhandler's are aggressive is crazy. Most sports fans are aggressive and they set cities on fire. Outlaw football.

So now, as is my legally protected right, I shall hit you up for money. There's donate buttons on the right and I need some oolong tea.


Anonymous Reformed Hippie said...

1. I do not give to panhandlers. I give to nonprofits who treat social ills. Giving money to sustain a person's lifestyle just prolongs their troubles. In my town (Arcata, Calif.) it's the naive college students who give money.

2. I have never panhandled.

3. A small portion of panhandlers are housed. In my area, the majority are unhoused twenty-something hippies (feral tribes) who have chosen their lifestyle. Some have mental issues, many have drug addictions, but the majority are homeless by choice (e.g., refuse any attempt at receiving help).

They travel the country, spending the summer in Arcata because it's a virtual Big Rock Candy Mountain. We have free no-questions-asked food (no case work), forests to camp in, and city council members who are discussing the establishment of a "dignity village" (camp site) and augmenting (hmmm, replacing?) police enforcement with citizen-led "harmony patrols." We run through police chiefs quick because they take heat for enforcing existing laws. Each year more non-local transients arrive and each year more stick around through the winter because the living is good.

4. One-time panhandling should be protected speech. It's OK if you REALLY did run out of gas, or you REALLY were evicted, or your car REALLY did break down. But if you are panhandling for a living, then you need a business license. Panhandling isn't speech (unless your definition is so broad as to include virtually anything). Panhandling is financial transaction.

11:22 AM

Blogger thepanhandler said...

You make some good points regarding weather panhandling is free speech. Much better than the "sometimes they're not nice" argument.
You suggest that the one time panhandler would be protected. How would this be regulated I wonder.
One thing I love about Texas is "the right to work" laws. No need for a business liscence.

12:07 PM

Anonymous Cary said...

1. Very rarely. I tend to donate to the organizations that can help homeless though.

2. Thankfully, I have never needed to panhandle.

3. I believe there might be an isolated case or two of the panhandler living in a nice house, but my gut instinct tells me it's because these people have some sort of mental quirk (or film project) that makes them go out and do it.

4. Sure, panhandling should be allowed. In my experience, 99 percent of these folks have not been of the aggressive variety. Why outlaw it for such a small minority?

12:48 PM

Anonymous Reformed Hippie said...

One-time-only panhandling is as easy to enforce as "no skateboarding" ordinances. Typically, your first time you get a warning, maybe one or two more warnings, then you get cited. If one-time-only panhandling were enforced, then the first visit with the officer would be merely to get an ID for tracking purposes and to inform the panhandler of the law so that ignorance isn't used as an excuse in the future. It would also be an opportunity for intervention, to direct the individual to appropriate social services.

2:13 PM

Anonymous Meryl Swiatek said...

1.) Visiting San Francisco last summer was the first time I actually gave any money to panhandlers. Sometimes it was just to people who looked really screwed up and the nice part of me felt bad for them. I much preferred giving money to people who were doing something entertaining like playing an instrument or some sort of lame trick or something.

Also, one time I remember my dad giving ten bucks to some guy at a Pizza Hut with a sob story about running out of gas and his ex-wife being mad because he was supposed to drop his kids back off, etc.

2.) No. I kind-of want to, but I've always been too afraid of getting beat-up or raped or something. That, or just not getting any money and feeling really depressed about it. This blog has made panhandling seem a lot more fun, now, but I probably still wouldn't try it.

3.) I'd honestly never thought about people who panhandled who didn't actually need the money. I guess I've just always thought of panhandling as such a horrible task that no one would do it unless they absolutely had to. I mean, I always assumed that most of the stories people gave for why they needed money were bogus, but I always figured that the people were poor and they just chose to play it off in whatever way they thought would get more people to feel bad for them and fork over a couple bucks.

4.) I don't know if it falls under the category of free speech, but people should be allowed to unagressively panhandle. There's nothing wrong with just standing around holding a sign or playing guitar or eating fire or whatever and waiting for people to give you money. Anybody who's harassing you on the street, whether a panhandler or just a garden-variety asshole, is out of line and should be arrested/cited/warned, but that kind of disciplinary action shouldn't be automatically taken on all panhandlers.

4:44 PM

Blogger •ch• said...

1. I do not give to panhandlers. I feel that there plenty of resources for them to get food/shelter. If they're panhandling, it's for alcohol/drug $$. I might be wrong, but that's how I feel. I have often seen panhandlers standing among half-eaten donuts and hamburgers that people have brought them.

2. I have never panhandled. Never had a reason to, thank you Jesus!

3. Before reading your blog, I would have said yes, I think there are panhandlers who go home to a nice house. But, now I'm not so sure.

4. Panhandling as free speech? I don't get it. I'm not saying I think it should be illegal, just that I don't get the free speech argument.

10:31 AM

Blogger Phelpsy said...

1. Yes, Yes I do. Infact I gave this very panhandler $7.50

2. Yeah, I panhandled other kids in high school. I would use the money to buy lunch or gas, depends on what I prefered that day. Good times, I wish I could still do it today... I could make up to about $10 in a lunch hour.

3. I have no doubt there are some panhandlers that are out ther eliving the good life.

4. Sure... Why Not?

11:13 AM

Blogger thepanhandler said...

Thanks for the responses so far.

The reason it's free speach is that, well, that's what free speach is, isn't it? The freedom to say "Hey, can you give me money please."

I have a right to ask you to help me and you have a right to say yes, or no, though I prefer you not exercise the right to say no, please.

The concept of "Homeless and panhandling by choice" sounds like a conservative invented concept but my own experience assures me they exist, and a-lot of 'em are really sweet people.

12:12 PM

Anonymous reformed hippie said...

There is such a thing as "homeless by choice." In our town his name is Tad. Here is a letter from Tad where he likens himself to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Jesus.

He calls such people "chosen non-participators." I like his line, "many are called, few are chosen." So, homelessness is a calling, at least for Tad. It's his job. That, and demanding free stuff at city council meetings.

2:12 PM

Blogger •ch• said...

I see your point re: free speech... sorta. I tend to think that asking for money takes it a step beyond free speech.
I can't sell you a hot dog on the corner without a license; should you be able to "sell" me your sob story? Maybe. I'm just sayin'.

11:09 AM

Blogger Merveilleuse said...

I think panhandlers should have the right to ask for money, but I don't really think of it as free speech. I think that ranting and raving on a topic, or writing a controversial essay would be free speech, but soliciting donations is a different category.

I don't give to panhandlers because I choose to provie money to services that provide food and shelter to people that chose to use the services available. However, I have often been approached by people asking for 2.00 to get on the bus. I never know if this is really what they want the 2.00 for, so I carry bus tickets with me and I give those out.

I have never panhandled, an I don't think I ever would.

I think that all panhandlers in my area have some form of housing. I don't think they go home to huge mansions, but it would be impossible to survive the -40 winters without some shelter.

12:42 PM

Anonymous que importa??? said...

are you going to post some of those interview answers? hope so, i'd like to know what a skinhead vs a migrant worker might think re. whole issue

1. never. mostly bc I can't be bothered to acknowledge people who harass me in the street or public transport. if you wanna beg from me or give me a flyer, from me you get a big F-U.

2. yes, when we were rowdy kids & wanted money for wine & beer we'd go to the nearest little town, take over the local plaza and ask money "for the bus ride home". It was fun! fun, obviously, cuz we were such irresponsible little shits & we'd laugh at the mean people who said no or go to hell

3. i seriously doubt it. i think it's the kind of bull shit story that suits and housewives tell themselves in order to feel less guilty about caring little and doing less about the serious inequalities our society encounters, one manifestation of which is poverty/homelessness, etc. to me it's as stupid as the peeps who say 'the holocaust never happened! so there!'

4. I'm pretty much pro any free-speech/human rights sorta enterprises in this respect. other than the whole 'it's constitutional' rhetoric, i personally prefer places/cities/towns, etc where lively unusual things are going on, where all aspects/types of humanity intermingle. IE take busking. In many places it's outlawed for the same reasons panhandling is outlawed which is to me such a tragedy! why must we make EVERYTHING so sterile? Is it not bad enough we work in damned cubes and everything is a big box or a strip mall?
I'm the first to say they annoy THE HELL out of me & I'd like to kick them in the arse esp. when in a bad mood, but it seems better to me to have them around. More accepting, more diverse, what have you.

1:26 PM

Anonymous whylieineedadrink said...

que importa???,

I will get some of the answers that we got durring our filmed interviews up here but it'll be a while. Probably not until after we edit the film.

I dig your answers, and yes, it's wonderful to have some variety in our increasingly homogenized world.

10:23 AM

Anonymous rjk said...

1. I occasionally give to panhandlers. I've also given to this particular panhandler. :)

2. I have never panhandled.

3. There are probably a few people who have homes and such who nonetheless choose to panhandle, but I think it must be very rare. Certainly not as many as you'd think based on all the people who know someone who knows someone who does it. :)

4. I think panhandling should be protected speech.

3:29 PM

Blogger Scootah said...

1 I do give to some panhandlers, usually on a whim. I object to buying drugs and alchohol far less then I object to buying mutiple highrise charity administration headquaters. I give more often to buskers. Dance for my money poor person, dance!

2 I have never panhandled

3 I live in the land of welfare support. There's no reason for anyone to be homeless in Australia unless your batshit insane. Government welfare will provide housing and food for anybody who fills in the forms, or tells the person in the office that they're illiterate and verbally answers the questions, in any one of 30 or so recognized languages. That said I only know personally of one guy who panhandles that I believe makes a significant income. He lives in london and takes his young son out and looks pitiful in the lineups outside of major nightclubs in between selling different sob stories. I have observed him pulling well upwards of a hundred pounds in a night, 3 nights a week. His son is in school with a friends daughter, his house is reputably quite normal.

4 - I support the right to free speech, and clearly asking for money is simply exercising that right. If somebody gives you money however, I think you become bound by the same laws as any merchant. You sell people an opportunity to feel good about themselves for helping out the less fortunate, I don't think its a smart career choice, but hey - if you can make a dollar off it, good for you. If you exceed poverty protection tax thresholds however, you should pay taxes like everyone else. (I'm not up on the US tax codes, but here you don't pay taxes untill you generate a relatively significant income).

4:57 AM


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