How much can a panhandler make in a day?
A question that popped up in water cooler conversation among co-workers. What followed was several days in September, spent on the streets talking and spending time with people who never thought in a million years, they'd be holding a sign and asking for help on street corners and along some of our busiest roadways.
Before we hit the streets, we wanted to gauge public opinion on panhandling. A simple post on our WKYC Facebook page: "Give us your opinion about panhandling in northeast Ohio using 5 words or less".
To no surprise, people couldn't limit their responses to a few words. We got mini-essays from most of the people who responded. In just a day, more than 600 people responded.
“Stop giving them money!”
“Be nice, it could be you.”
“It is out of control.”
“Try filling out an application.”
“Use this time to be a volunteer or seek employment.”
Some people might give a few bucks and others might avert their eyes, but how many people with a strong opinion have actually stopped and talked to a panhandler at length? That’s what we set out to do.
The first person we met was Chris. He is 36 and lives in a men 's shelter in Cleveland. We met Chris near the airport, at an exit ramp. "I call it asking for help. More so than anything," he said.
Most days, Chris takes RTA to the airport where he stands at one of any several on or off ramps. He welcomed our questions, the first of which was "Why are you here?"
"I have a few mental health issues. I'm unable to hold a job. I've had 37 jobs since I was 16 and I am 36. This is the lesser of 200 evils. It's this or other things and I'd rather do this than other things to get money," he said.
Many of our Facebook responses referenced drug use by panhandlers. We wanted to know, was this one of the reasons Chris had turned to panhandling?
He was honest. Yes, he had been addicted to drugs in the past. Yes, many fellow panhandlers he knows have battled drugs at one point. But he insists, the money he is getting from panhandling, isn't going to drugs.
"Child support, getting a hotel once in a while, eating, cigarettes. I'm not going to lie: cigarettes. I used to be on drugs, but in the past 2 months 4 people I know died, so that was enough to get me off of it," Chris said.
"I was on heroin for a year or two. When I first started I was on heroin, yeah. That was my thing. But as most of my friends started dying I went to Orca house, got clean and now I am here," he said.
We asked about the jobs he's held. Grocery store, constructing, siding, roofing he rattled off.
What does he consider a good day's earnings for panhandling? "Twenty-five dollars is a good day," he said.
But $25 won't pay the ticket Chris got the day before. The fine for panhandling at a highway entrance or exit ramp: $250.
For him, it likely means some jail time. "That's the hard part. Usually, we just sit in jail over it for 3 days," Chris said.
“The ones that think, you get a job, you need to do this and do that, you don’t know me. You don’t know my life. Don’t think you do, k? You couldn’t last one day out here,” said Tommy Porter.
The 48-year-old walks from his tent to a corner in Akron every morning around 7:30. For hours, he bakes in the sun and stands silently with his sign until someone rolls down their window.
Tommy’s tried dozens of times, but couldn’t hold a steady job.
“I’ve had 86 different temporary jobs in my life,” he said. "I'm not getting nowhere. Every time I do it I want to kill myself. Too much depression comes into it. Life's getting harder and harder."
He says he’s battled addiction and been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
After about 8 hours, he takes what money he makes to the nearest gas station.
Tommy says he generally makes about $15 to $20 a day.
“Go get something to eat, some pop. Get just what I need and I go to my tent, wait for tomorrow,” he told us.
His dream? "Drive a truck. That's freedom." But freedom comes with a price. Tommy says he owes $1,000 in reinstatement fees to get his driver's license back.
In spite of his hard times, he has faith in humanity. "I meet a lot of nice people, believe me, there's a lot of good people out here. God bless you guys," Tommy said. The people that do give? Tommy says they are the ones driving "hoopties" or old, rundown cars. "I've never gotten anything from a Mercedes Benz, a BMW or Lincoln. Or a Porsche. Usually, the 'hoopties' are the ones that help," Tommy said.
Jan told us she started panhandling after her husband died unexpectedly 6 months ago. She lost everything including her car and she is living in a shelter.
Like Chris and Tommy, she tried temporary work too, but it always ended. At one time in her life, she was a medical assistant.
"All I'm really out here for is to get enough money for food, something to eat. Twenty bucks and I am happy," Jan said.
The first time she panhandled, Jan says she did it to help buy formula and diapers for her granddaughter.
"I cried a lot on the corner, ya know because it's embarrassing to have to do it, but I had to do what I had to do for my granddaughter," Jan said.
Up until last May, Ray says he was working at a used car lot. But he lost that job, says he's filled out more job applications than he can count, and is simply down on his luck.
"Never in a million years did I think I would be standing here on some exit ramp doing this. I'm 59. I don't have any experience. I don't know any good skills or trades," he lamented.
Ray declined to say how much he might make in a day but says his nights are spent sleeping in a friends car.
Holding a sign asking for help in public is considered free speech. Cleveland has no specific regulation when it comes to panhandling on its sidewalks. But aggressive beggars can still be charged with a number of things like menacing, stalking or theft by deception.
A new law in Cleveland prohibits soliciting from the driver of a vehicle. So, you’re not supposed to stand on the sidewalk or at a freeway ramp and ask for money from cars.
We learned most panhandlers make about $2 to $3 per hour on average, maybe $15 or $20 per day. They told us they would like to be able to keep a job, but can’t because of their past or struggles with addiction and mental illness.
The panhandlers we spoke with do have dreams. Tommy would love to pay off fines, regain his license and drive a truck. He calls that freedom. Both Tommy and Chris mention winning the lottery when you ask about their future, showing no solid plans but the ones to get through today.