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Panhandling is a job. Here's what it pays

Holding out a tin cup all day earns less than minimum wage

By David HeitzPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
Zach Lucero/Unsplash

People who panhandle take it very seriously. Especially the ones who are good at it.

Many consider it a full-time job. I know this because I experienced homelessness in 2019 and knew lots of people who panhandled. I never did it. Not once. I did not have the guts.

If you ask me, panhandling takes guts. The first, “Get a job!” yelled out the window at me and I’d be burning my sign. Having people throw change at you also is demeaning. Like they’re tossing feed to chickens.

Some people have no qualms at all about asking for money. Many take the honest approach: “Need weed money” say some cardboard signs. “God bless” is especially popular.

Ian Taylor/Unsplash

Others try to be more creative. I see discarded signs all the time. They litter the sidewalk around the area where I live. I live in housing for people formerly homeless. A lot of people still act homeless. There are several who have lived here well over a year and never held a job. They fly a sign though.

Users exchange spare change for drugs

It’s true that many people experiencing homelessness battle addiction. Many people in my building fly a sign to feed their addiction and have money for nothing else. Every dime goes to the drug.

Many people who fly signs do it so they can buy cigarettes. Sometimes I see people in my building pick up discarded butts they want a cigarette so bad. They call them snipes.

People who fly signs aren’t afraid to ask you, “Got a cigarette?” every day either, even if you tell them every single day you don’t smoke.

The ones who make the most money, from what I can tell, don’t say much. They have a clear sign. If they are elderly with a walker or in a wheelchair, they tend to make more.

Zac Durant/Unsplash

At a busy intersection, on average, someone who flies a sign consistently for four hours will make about $70 on a good day. Some days they make only a few bucks, however. Someone I know sat out there all day in the cold one day last week and make $3.58.

You again?

People who go to the same intersection over and over do enjoy regular contributors. However, others look upon them as lazy or greedy since they see them panhandling every single day. Some panhandlers say it’s better to move around a bit.

Panhandlers receive things other than money. Believe it or not, many people will give people experiencing homeless booze. Tourists sometimes do this before returning their rental car. I lived (if you want to call it that) in an encampment in a homeless shelter parking lot. Tourists regularly dropped off the alcohol they didn’t drink.

Lots of people will give out weed, too, especially in Denver. Sometimes people will offer to buy a panhandler a meal. It’s not unusual to receive a Bible now and then. A woman gave my friend a ceramic bank in the shape of a fox several months ago.

Panhandling not for me

I won an award in 2010 for a story I wrote about panhandling. I talked to panhandlers in the Quad-Cities of Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. I would link to the story so you could read it, but it stands behind a firewall. The Times’ parent company, Lee Enterprises, isn’t known for giving things away.

Even though I had written that story, and won the award for it, I could not bring myself to panhandle. I often felt terrible about it, too because the ones who panhandled supplied me with weed. Otherwise, I would have had to go without marijuana during homelessness. And I often did.

Some people don’t have a problem asking for everything and anything.

Patrick Hendry/Unsplash

Perhaps it’s a learned trait or a survival skill for people experiencing homelessness.

It wasn’t for me. I never asked anyone for anything, ever. That was a big part of my problem. Without help, I was stuck. I had forgotten how to take care of myself.


About the Creator

David Heitz

I am a journalist with more than 30 years' experience. Here at Vocal, I write mainly for Potent, Vocal's cannabis magazine. I have a PTSD diagnosis and a medical cannabis card. I have lived in a penthouse and also experienced homelessness.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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Comments (1)

  • Novel Allen2 years ago

    Hi. You have not , I don't think, read any of my stories. I saw your comment on the Russian sleep experiment and wondered if you felt that Vocal is a little bit nuts in the choices that they make. I did not finish reading it, too gory for me. I wrote a piece on graffiti that won me a top story. I like stories like yours. I root for underdog stories, not the ones in bright lights. Dhar, however is one of my favorites on Vocal, she is really sweet.

David HeitzWritten by David Heitz

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