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Monday, November 9, 2015

God Bless! Those Darn Panhandlers!

"A man stalks off across the intersection and holds up his sign: 'HOMELESS. HUNGRY. GOD BLESS.'

"'God bless' -- the universal sentiment of Portland's latest street-corner industry, where sympathy is measured in quarters and sorrow is scrawled with a Sharpie. In the last few years, roadside panhandlers (known on the street as signers or flaggers) have spread like dandelions in a ditch, populating on-ramps, off-ramps, interchanges and highway dividers, clutching cardboard signs that proclaim their plight.

"'You see it everywhere,' says Portland Police Sgt. Brian Schmautz.

"You might think the reason a particular individual flies a sign at a particular intersection at any given moment is governed by chance. In fact, flagging is anything but random. It is a profession with its own rules and hierarchies. Ninety flaggers, each earning $35 a day, pencils out to more than $1 million a year. Chickenfeed by your standards, maybe, but it's enough money to spawn careers, cartels, competition—and enforcers."

(Dave Fitzpatrick. "Panhandlers, Inc.: Inside Portland's million-dollar begging business."
Portland Wilkamette Week. February 15, 2015.)

After writing about the alleged problems Scioto County is experiencing with panhandling, I thought it necessary to research further the topic. What I discovered is that although a lot of opinion and speculation exist, very little recent research addresses panhandling. Who begs for money? Why do they beg for money? I will do my best to set the record straight, yet answers are myriad.

Passive and Aggressive Panhandlers

For purposes of easy examination, it is useful to make a distinction between two basic styles of begging for money. Two types of panhandling exist: passive and aggressive. Passive panhandling is soliciting without threat or menace, often without any words exchanged at all. For example the panhandler simply holds out a cup or a hand, or perhaps a sign of solicitation. Aggressive panhandling is soliciting coercively, with actual or implied threats, or menacing actions. Of course, if a panhandler uses physical force or extremely aggressive actions, the panhandling may constitute robbery.

Isolated incidents of passive panhandling are usually a low police priority. And, even where it is illegal, police usually tolerate passive panhandling, for both legal and practical reasons. Police can reasonably conclude that, absent citizen complaints, their time is better spent addressing more serious problems.

Panhandling becomes a higher police priority when it becomes aggressive or so pervasive that its cumulative effect, even when done passively, is to make passersby apprehensive. Also more extreme, aggressive behaviors are usually considered criminal -- panhandlers who touch others, those who make loud, sometimes repeated demands (sometimes with profanity), and those who solicit in places that are particularly intimidating such as near ATM machines, in a restroom, or near people's cars.

In fact, aggressive panhandling has been found to be of great concern to merchants who worry that their customers will be discouraged from patronizing their business. These merchants are most likely to call police when panhandling disrupts their commerce.

(Michael S. Scott. "The Problem of Panhandling." Center for Problem-Oriented Policy. State University of New York. 2002.)

Public Perspective of Panhandlers

"Panhandling evokes an enormous amount of emotion on both sides," says Molly Neck, program director of the National Coalition of the Homeless. "There's a belief that people are homeless by choice, or due to mistakes they've made. It's like, 'I have a job, why can't you?'"

(Dave Fitzpatrick. "Panhandlers, Inc.: Inside Portland's million-dollar begging business."
Portland Wilkamette Week. February 15, 2015.)

The public policy perspectives on panhandling are consistent with two types -- the sympathetic view and the unsympathetic view.

(A) The sympathetic view, commonly held by civil libertarians and homeless advocates, is that panhandling is essential to destitute people's survival, and should not be regulated by police. Some even view panhandling as a poignant expression of the plight of the needy, and an opportunity for the more fortunate to help.

The percentage of college students who give to panhandlers (between 50 and 60 percent) tends to be higher than that of the general population. There is some evidence that women and minorities tend to give more freely.

One survey in the San Francisco Bay area found that the largest group of people who chose to give were young working-class residents. Empathy was a main driver; three in five said the gave “because they or a family member may be in need someday.”

(Stephen R. Munzer. "Ellickson on 'Chronic Misconduct' in Urban Spaces: Of Panhandlers, Bench Squatters, and Day Laborers." Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. 1997.)

(B) The unsympathetic view is that panhandling is a blight that contributes to further community disorder and crime, as well as to panhandlers' degradation and deterioration as their underlying problems go unaddressed. Those holding this view believe panhandling should be heavily regulated by police.

(Rob Tier. "Restoring Order In Urban Public Places. Texas Review of Law and Politics. 1998.)

What makes a person sympathetic or unsympathetic to panhandlers? People's opinions about panhandling are rooted in deeply held beliefs about individual liberty, public order and social
responsibility. In addition, their opinions are shaped by their actual exposure to panhandling -- the more people are panhandled, the less sympathetic they are toward panhandlers.

(James Q. Wilson. "The Plague of Professional Panhandling. Manhattan Institute.)

So, while people may not approve of panhandling, most tolerate any kind of minor street disorder, but others are genuinely frightened by it. Michael Scott believes in a more neutral stance about panhandling without passing judgment on the degree of sympathy owed to panhandlers -- that stance recognizes that police will always be under some pressure to control panhandling, and that there are effective and fair ways to do so.

(Michael S. Scott. "The Problem of Panhandling." Center for Problem-Oriented Policy. State University of New York. 2002.)

Who Panhandles?

The reasons for panhandling are anything but simple. Many signers face obstacles to employment such as homelessness, criminal background, substance abuse or mental illness.

Dave Fitzpatrick says ...

"When you have no phone, no shower and no washing machine, finding a job is tough -- and signing starts to make sense... On one hand, it's pathetic that anyone would be willing to scrap over such a meager haul. But for many flaggers, their turf is their livelihood, the only thing they have -- and they'll fight to protect it. And though no one claims to enjoy flagging, some have convinced themselves that they are actually performing a civic duty."

If life does become "beg, borrow, or steal," many evidently become comfortable with panhandling. Some are addicts; some have warrant prohibiting them from collecting Supplemental Security Income assistance from Social Security; some suffer post-traumatic shock disorder with dishonorable discharges that disqualify them for benefits; some are there for some other "bad luck" reason.

(Dave Fitzpatrick. "Panhandlers, Inc.: Inside Portland's million-dollar begging business."
Portland Wilkamette Week. February 15, 2015.)

Fox News’ John Stossel, has taken on beggars. “I had heard that some people beg for a living and make big bucks -- $80,000 a year in some cases,” Stossel told Fox & Friends. “You really shouldn’t give to these street people,” Stossel concluded. “You are really supporting alcoholism and drug problems.”

Researchers wanted to test out whether this widely held view of panhandlers as lazy alcoholics getting rich off others was correct. The Union Square Business Improvement District, a collection of 500 property owners in downtown San Francisco, hired GLS Research to survey panhandlers over a two-day period.

In San Francisco’s Union Square, the typical panhandler is a disabled middle-aged single male who is a racial minority and makes less than $25 per day despite panhandling seven days a week for more than five years. Though many are insistent that panhandlers just use the money for beer and pot, the majority of those surveyed did not. In fact, 94 percent used the meager funds they raised for food.

Findings of the study include the following:

* 26 percent served in the military
* 70 percent are 40 to 59 years old
* 58 percent have been panhandling for at least five years
* 53 percent panhandle seven days a week
* 60 percent make $25 a day or less
* 94 percent use the money for food
* 44 percent use it for drugs or alcohol
* 62 percent are disabled
* 25 percent are alcoholics
* 32 percent are addicted to drugs
* 82 percent are homeless

(Scott Keyes. "Everything You Think You Know About Panhandlers Is Wrong." Center for American Progress Action Fund. October 30, 2013.)

Studies by Michael S. Scott pretty much confirm the GLS profile of a panhandler as an unemployed, unmarried male in his 30s or 40s, with substance abuse problems, few family ties, a high school education, and laborer's skills. Scott also found some panhandlers suffer from mental illness, but most do not. Many panhandlers have criminal records, but panhandlers are nearly as likely to have been crime victims as offenders. Some are transient, but most have been in their community for a long time.

One study looked at the income and spending patterns among panhandlers and found the majority of panhandlers (in Toronto) are homeless and living in extreme poverty. Panhandlers made a median of about $30 a day.

The research concluded that the amount of money panhandlers spend on alcohol and illicit drugs was significant, but much lower than some have suggested. The health effects of a loss of panhandling income were uncertain because panhandlers might reduce their food intake, reduce their substance use or find other sources of income. For the one-fourth of panhandlers who rent a room or apartment, however, any loss of income could easily lead to homelessness.

(Rohit Bose and Stephen W. Hwang. "Income and spending patterns among panhandlers." Canadian Medical Association Journal. September 03, 2002.)

From more recent studies (2013) conducted in Portland, a researcher found people who resort to panhandling are poor, and panhandling does not appear to be a viable means of supporting oneself. There, panhandling respondents reported an average hourly income of $4.96, an average daily income of $21.69, and an average weekly income of $106.64. The listed income did not include gifts.

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.

Food was far and away the most frequently reported expenditure. Panhandlers 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. 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.

Marijuana was the most popular illicit drug among panhandlers, with 23 of the 50 respondents having acknowledged using it in the last year. "Is weed illegal here?" was a common refrain during the interviews.

Heroin was the hard drug 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.

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.

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.

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.

Only seven of the panhandlers 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.

(Joe Streckert. "The Millionaire Panhandler: Separating the Facts from the Myths Surrounding Panhandling." The Portland Mercury. September 25, 2013.)

Many people claim organized groups of panhandlers make piles of tax-free money. I found little evidence in Internet research.

Reporter Jordy Yager spent nine months speaking with the panhandlers around Charlottesville. Yager found some panhandlers tell of a bad past and a future of day-to-day existence. Mike, a 35-year-old, had traveled through 26 states, but was born and raised in Orange County and has lived in Virginia most of his life, moving around a lot -- Madison, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Warrenton, Culpeper and Charlottesville. His father walked out when he was 3 years old, leaving his mother to raise him while working two jobs.

Mike has been running in the streets since he was 13. He did his first line of cocaine when he was 10. By the time he was 15, he was “a full-blown drug addict.” He was “a struggling ass dope fiend who didn’t give a fuck about nothing and nobody,” he said.

Now, Mike said, he hasn’t used hard drugs for four years. He even quit drinking in January 2014, and hasn’t been arrested for two years, the longest ever since he was a kid. He chalks it up to being able to survive off panhandling.

This is Mike's story as told by Yager ...

"Mike had been to the Virginia Workforce center, Worksource Enterprises -- a non-profit job training and employment group -- and Offender Aid & Restoration (OAR) looking for help with work and being on the streets. Mike said they told him, 'You’re chronic streets. There’s no help for you. You’ve been out here too long.'So then, he felt hopeless.

“'Where do you get help from there? That’s every place in town,” Mike said. He wanted to tell them, 'Don’t judge me on the 10,000 people that stood here before me. Judge me upon me.'

"Mike's daily routine? He wakes up around 4:30am at the campsite he now shares with fellow panhandlers Floyd and Robert. If they have any money left over from the day before, he heads to 7-11 to get coffee by 6 a.m. and then to Kroger to get Floyd, or 'Pops' as he calls him, a 24-ounce can of Twisted Tea. He calculates exactly how much money he needs that day to get by. And by 8 a.m. he’s 'on the block,' panhandling.

"Mike said he believes that people think he and his group are organized because they see them look out for one another. Like most 'coworkers,' they talk with each other throughout the day about how things are going, who else is flying signs and what kind of drivers are stopping. There is an unspoken code of conduct among them that allows for a rotation at more successful medians.

“'There are no schedules or anything like that,' said Mike. 'You wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, I’m going over here.’

"If one person is too tired or sick to panhandle, the others will share what they make with them. They carry most of their belongings with them in large backpacks that they fear will be stolen if left unattended. So they’ll watch each other’s stuff when someone goes to the bathroom. If they’ve gotten a gift card for $10 at Arby’s, they’ll buy four beef and cheddar sandwiches and pass them around. 'When I eat, they eat,' said Mike. 'When they eat, I eat.'

"On freezing cold nights, they’ll pool their money to get a room at the Quality Inn for about $65 and cram at least four people in it, sometimes as many as seven or eight. Last month, a panhandler in the group named Joe got a substantial check from the government and paid for a room for everyone for several nights.

“'People see that, and all of a sudden we’re organized,' said Mike. “Ain’t none of this shit scripted. It’s real life. The only family I really have is the peoples that’s out here.”

(Jordy Yager. "The Median Men: Loyalty, tough times mark lives of Charlottesville panhandlers." Charlottesville Weekly. December 03, 2014.)

Yet, also, there is evidence of a "new, more professional" type of panhandler. Even those with some reliable income may not have enough to maintain a living these days.

Steve Malanga, senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute says "the old type of panhandler -- a mentally impaired or disabled homeless person trying to scrape together a few bucks for a meal-- is giving way to the full-time spanger who supports himself through a combination of begging, working at odd jobs, and other sources, like government assistance from disability payments."

And, Makanga explains that even many young people simply see panhandling as a job ...

"Some full-time panhandlers are kids -- 'road warriors' who have largely dropped out of society and drift from town to town, often 'couch surfing' at friends’ homes, or 'street loiterers' who daily make their way downtown from the suburbs where they live. Some, like New Yorker Steve Baker, have turned begging into a full-time job. 'If you’re inside a bank, you’re a doorman,' he says from his perch inside a bank lobby. 'You’re not gonna rob from nobody or steal from nobody—you come in here and make a job for yourself.'"

(Steve Malanga. "The Professional Panhandling Plague." City Journal.
Manhattan Institute Summer 2008.)

Are People Willing to Prosecute Panhandlers?

The city council of the Indianapolis suburb of Greenwood voted in 2014 to enact an ordinance that bans panhandling on busy roads, near banks, at sidewalk cafes and on city property. Police can ticket violators; the fine is $120 to $2,500.

But, according to Indiana's top civil-rights lawyer, the suburb's crackdown on panhandling violates the Constitution's protection of free speech. "Greenwood has in effect made itself a First Amendment-free zone, and government can't do that," said Ken Falk, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

Falk called the Greenwood ordinance extremely broad, saying it applies to anyone who might seek donations in a public place, including Girl Scouts, church groups, (charities?) and political parties. Banning panhandling on city-owned property also is going too far, he said. That language could forbid panhandling on any street, sidewalk or park here. Panhandlers actually became more active at busy roads and parking lots after Indianapolis last tightened its panhandling rules in 2009, Police Chief John Laut said.

(Vic Ryckaert. "Suburb to panhandlers: Get out or get fined."
The Indianapolis Star. October 31, 2014.)

Many other municipalities around the country have passed anti-panhandling laws, but they usually do so under the guise of banning “aggressive panhandling,” a term that attempts to circumvent various court rulings that the First Amendment protects people’s right to ask others for money.

Places like Boise last year and Sacramento have taken up anti-panhandling measures recently. (Boise’s law was quickly struck down by a federal judge in 2014.) A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that more than half of cities across the country prohibit begging “aggressively” or in particular places, while 24 percent have citywide bans on panhandling, a 7 percent increase between 2009 and 2011.

Now, a new bill to outlaw panhandling is quickly moving its way through the Louisiana legislature. HB 1158 would criminalize solicitation, making it a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum fine of $200 and up to six months in jail. The bill is targeted not just at panhandlers, but hitchhikers and those engaged in prostitution as well.

(Scott Keyes. "Louisiana About To Make It Illegal For Homeless People To Beg For Money." Center for American Progress Action Fund. April 29, 2014.)

Some U.S. cities already have licensure laws for panhandling on the books. Requiring panhandlers to apply for picture licenses in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, sparked outcries among advocates for the homeless, with some advocates obtaining licenses in protest. Critics say forcing panhandlers to apply for licenses attacks a symptom of poverty and not the problem.

"In some cities it is clear they want to remove any indication that the economy is bad so that tourists and visitors will come downtown. They want to do away with the unseemly elements of urban living, and that is panhandlers," said Gary Daniels, litigation coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

"What the municipalities are saying is you can engage in any manner of free speech on sidewalks, except panhandling," Daniels said.

(Tim Jones. "Some communities asking for change." Chicago Tribune. May 01, 2005.)

Believe it or not, in Canada, the Ottawa Panhandlers' Union was formed as a union for panhandlers in early 2003. It is a shop of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Ottawa-Outaouis General Members Branch. The union fights systematic oppression faced by street people in Ottawa; this includes the homeless, panhandlers, buskers, and people with a fixed income who are part of the street.

(Patricia Lonergan. "Victims of the system." Ottawa City Journal. May 03, 2007.)

And the Internet is a tool for 21st century panhandlers. Online, a variety of websites dispense panhandling advice. NeedCom, for example -- subtitled “Market Research for Panhandlers” -- offers tips from Baker and other pros on how to hustle. The website’s developer, Cathy Davies, wants it to get people "thinking about panhandling as a realistic economic activity, rather than thinking that panhandlers are lazy or don’t work very hard.”

(Steve Malanga. "The Professional Panhandling Plague." City Journal.
Manhattan Institute Summer 2008.)

Some locales are experimenting with innovative ways to curb panhandling. Orlando allows begging only in “panhandling zones,” demarcated by blue boxes painted on the sidewalks in several locations. They have also installed "homeless meters" in 2011 near spots where panhandling is grudgingly allowed. People can deposit their coins in the repurposed parking meters -- painted a different color and set back from the street -- instead of giving spare change to panhandlers. The city collects the money and gives it to a nonprofit group -- the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness -- to help the homeless.

However ...

The city spent $2,000 — not counting the hours of city workers' labor — to acquire and retrofit the old parking meters and then install them. As of September 2, 2014, records show downtown workers and visitors have deposited $2,027 since 2011, only recently topping the city's initial cash investment.

That means the 15 meters have collected, on average, 58 cents a day, or 4 cents per meter per day.

My Two Cents

No one should endure aggravation and harassment from aggressive panhandlers. I trust that all people will report such activity to authorities, and I also trust that those authorities will stop threatening and lewd behaviors. There is a real risk to personal safety from aggressive strangers, and, I do understand how these panhandlers could hurt businesses by their unseemly acts.

Although I often get tired of hearing First Amendment privileges in this "me" society, I feel those "flaggers" and similar nonaggressive beggars have become a problem of our own making. We make ourselves feel uncomfortable when we spot them plying their trade on our unobstructed sidewalks and roadways. These, after all, are public places.

Every fiber in my body aches to judge a panhandler as a lazy public nuisance and imagine he is part of some large group conspiracy actively scamming donors while living a comfortable, tax-free existence. But, that is pure speculation on my part that comes from my own mistrust and my own guilt, not from him. Let's face it, the panhandler doesn't really pose danger while standing there holding a homemade cardboard sign that reads "Down On My Luck."

We all can help those who are panhandling by simply recognizing that person’s humanity. Deep down, I know that. That is why I am pledging to take the burden of judgment from myself and "not sweat the small stuff." I realize the reason I feel uncomfortable when I see a person panhandling is because it reminds me of how privileged and blessed I am. For whatever reason that person is on the street -- good, bad, or indifferent -- I understand I don't have to join him and beg.

If I choose not to give, and I probably will choose not to contribute, I can still look a panhandler in the eye and give him a nod or a friendly smile. And, if I do occasionally give, I must know that I can't police where my money goes if I choose to give it away. I control the nonaggressive situation I encounter.

I feel better already by not making myself upset with some prejudged, hateful response. Wasn't it Tiny Tim, who in Dickens' A Christmas Carol offers the blessing at Christmas dinner of "God bless Us, Every One!" Remember, the author repeats the phrase at the end of the story, and this is symbolic of Scrooge's change of heart. Maybe we all need that blessing, no matter how rich or poor, no matter how blessed or forgotten.
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