Tips for panhandlers, from panhandlers

by on September 3, 2008 at 8:24 am in Economics | Permalink

Currently, the direct, humorous approach is in vogue. That’s why in
many cities today you’ll hear some version of: "I won’t lie to you, I
need a drink." Panhandlers also report that asking for specific amounts
of money lends credibility to pitches. "I need 43 more cents to get a
cup of coffee," a panhandler will declare; some people will give
exactly that much, while others will simply hand over a buck.

Oddly, the tips are offered on-line:

If it seems unlikely that a homeless person would surf the Web for
advice on how to panhandle, that’s exactly the point: many aren’t
homeless and are lying about their circumstances.

And what’s the rate of return?:

Anecdotal surveys by journalists and police, and even testimony by
panhandlers themselves, suggest that begging can yield anywhere from
$20 to $100 a day–though police in Coos Bay, Oregon, found that local
panhandlers were taking in as much as $300 a day in a Wal-Mart parking
lot. “A panhandler could make thirty to forty thousand dollars a year,
tax-free money,” Baker says.

Anonymous September 3, 2008 at 8:36 am

Your article does mention peer review, which I have seen on couple occasions at Harvard square. A group of pan handlers will gather and critique each others pitch and signs. At one session I witnessed, one had evidently come up with a brilliant sign, as the ohhs, ahhs and exclamations of the fellow pan handlers were universal and abundant. Sadly, I could not see the sign.

Cyrus September 3, 2008 at 8:56 am

I often see estimates on the upper end of panhandlers’ earnings, but never the median. The statements seem a bit like the pitches in work from home schemes, often down to the wording. (Make $200 per day!)

Levi September 3, 2008 at 9:21 am

David N. Welton: It’s well known among those who ask for donations (think the bell ringers at Christmas) that you’ll do better at Wal-Mart than at a more upscale store. I’ve heard this on multiple occassions in different regions of my state (North Carolina) and once more from a very bright psyc professor.

Yan Li September 3, 2008 at 9:27 am

Speechless panhandling can be very effective. One day, I walked out of the metro and found a middle aged man, decently dressed, standing up straight against a pole, holding a cardboard with both hands, looking pale and devastated. I forget what was written on the card board. I gave him money. Another speechless panhandler I like a lot is a black guy with a trombone that he blows like a bugle. He plays only one Christmas tune out of his lung all year round. It is fun to hear it in the morning. I give him money whenever I am chipper.

AZ September 3, 2008 at 9:58 am

There was a guy in Tallahassee who used to stand on the corner of Monroe and Appalachee Parkway that had the “Why lie I’d love a beer” sign. This was at a minimum 5 years ago and more likely around 8-10 years ago. Guy would, so the rumor goes, make a decent amount of money.

Levi – I can see this being true, although I don’t precisely know the reason why. Is it possible that there is a cash/plastic effect here? Wealthy people in wealthy stores may be using plastic and have little cash (and what cash they do have may be in $10/$20/$100 denominations), whereas those shopping in the Wal-Mart are more likely to be carrying cash in lower denominations?

SL September 3, 2008 at 10:07 am

Following up on DNL: At least in DC, it’s common for homeless men and women to spend hours at the MLK library surfing the web using the library’s computers.

Ned September 3, 2008 at 10:13 am

“Sharpe’s Fury” by Bernard Cornwell has a nice section about gangs of professional beggars using violence and intimidation to protect their turf in England and Spain.

Martin September 3, 2008 at 10:44 am

What percentage of panhandlers are homeless?

mt September 3, 2008 at 10:50 am

Sounds a lot like graduate school, research on the internet, sitting around and telling stories, and tax-free status. However, seems that it pays better. I can see the appeal.

Andrew September 3, 2008 at 10:52 am

I liked the note about converting some parking meters to donation stations.

It would be interesting to allow panhandlers to rent blocks in return for a cut from the adjacent meters. Enforcement of stiff penalties for accosting people could be supported out of the till. Fines against the donations for unkempt streets complaints could lose them their franchise. I’m sure panhandlers hate dealing with the public as much as other retail workers.

liberty September 3, 2008 at 11:06 am

“People still repeat those stupid “panhandlers make a ton of money” stories? These stories are obvious BS (how could a panhandler possibly make $300 a day in spare change and $1 bills? Where is he keeping all this money as he collects it?) and basically serve as a rationalization of our amazing greed.”

1. Many people give in higher denominations (at least in NY). The NJ bus stories often rake in $5 at a hit.

2. They spend some of it along the way (and maybe trade in for higher denominations).

3. They have big pockets, and yes, wallets.

Most tips-based industries deal in small denominations– where do strippers keep all those ones? They have a system.

Note: most panhandlers don’t earn this much every single day — it is good days and good spots where this much is earned. But the halfway decent panhandler in NY earns a lot more than you think.

anon September 3, 2008 at 11:24 am

The resourcefulness of panhandlers is very intriguing. And the fact that the beggars are turning to the internet for tips on illustrates the human capacity for adaptation. Regardless of morality, these people are making the best use of free resources (internet, cardboard, newspaper)available to them. Scavengers are present in every ecosystem, and like the crab or vuluture or any other saprophytic being panhandlers have and will continue to evolve.

For whatever reason (drugs, psychological problems, etc.) these people find themselves completely dependent on others for income. If the panhandler seems sincere, most folks will toss a few coins their way. Which in some sense is admirable but is also enabling the beggar to continue to leech off of society. The next time a panhandler asks for change, them him change comes from within.

Anonymous September 3, 2008 at 12:19 pm

we all know that most panhandlers are not there because it’s lucrative

No, we don’t all know. I don’t. Neither do you.
Go do proper research then report the results.

The trolls this blog has attracted after the Palin post (800 comments and still going strong) is unfortunate.

Alex and Tyler – is it Tyrone who is insisting you not turn the comments off on that post?

Yummy Jesus September 3, 2008 at 1:32 pm

“The point, anyway, is that we all know that most panhandlers are not there because it’s lucrative yet we repeat these stories so we don’t feel bad about not sharing our money.”

Panhandling is clearly lucrative insofar as it is capable of sustaining the wellbeing of a human being. Were panhandling not reliably capable of that, nobody would do it, much less persist in doing it for an extended period of time as the entrenched homeless seem to. The question is, were panhandling not lucrative, would the current panhandling demographic then starve, or would it find some alternate means of securing its livelihood. I would wager the latter, to say nothing of the nature of that alternative.

“People still repeat those stupid “panhandlers make a ton of money” stories? These stories are obvious BS (how could a panhandler possibly make $300 a day in spare change and $1 bills? Where is he keeping all this money as he collects it?) and basically serve as a rationalization of our amazing greed.”

The kind of person most in need of aid is often incapable of asking for it his or her self, much less making a career out of asking for it. For aid to penetrate that level of poverty it is demanded of donors that their generosity be exercised in anonymity.

The relationship between panhandlers and chivalrous pedestrians is far more complementary, usually involves a comparatively tiny exchange of wealth, and occurs in public.

sdgkh September 3, 2008 at 1:38 pm

@AZ: wealthy people in wealthy stores did not become that way by handing out money to people who ask for it. in addition personnel are usually empowered to keep the wealthy from being harrassed by those who would prevent them from enjoying their wealth

walmart shoppers are more sympathetic to those who appear to be down on their luck

Anonymous September 3, 2008 at 3:48 pm

Professional panhandlers provide two services. First, they provide a mild form of entertainment or performance art, with practised spiels and lines, that may be worth a voluntarily-contributed couple of coins. Second, by quietly enforcing territoriality they exclude from their turf the presence of potentially worse individuals (ie, odoriferious crazies), in effect doing what police or private security can or will no longer do.

JimS September 3, 2008 at 3:54 pm

In 1990 I was a senior at the U. of Washington in Seattle. The unemployment rate was about -2%. Every business in our neighborhood had help wanted signs and you could make $10/hour flipping burgers. There was a young guy who worked the 15th Ave East at least once a week. I asked why he was panhandling with all the jobs available. He responded that he averaged $20/hour and it’d be too big a pay cut.(he did have a good spiel, and watching him from the coffee shop, he seemed to do very well.)

MH September 3, 2008 at 8:17 pm

Ryan: It’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (available on wikisource).

Careless September 4, 2008 at 12:27 am

I’m reminded of the time my father gave a bum a $20 and he said “thanks, I’ll vote Republican.” We’ve had a small group of comedian panhandlers (a distinct minority) for a long time here in Evanston.

Back in high school, a friend of mine became friends of a sort with a local bum. Well, we happened to be walking down the street one day when we ran into him, in a tuxedo coming out of the store. Told us he had to pick something up on the way to his daughter’s wedding and jumped into a fairly cheap but almost new car.

Quite a lesson.

brainwarped September 4, 2008 at 9:09 am

Who is lobbying for panhandlers? I read one post that says local businesses because it keeps the “crazy” people off the street. But then where do all the “crazy” people go? Also, panhandlers probably do their research at the library because its free, not because they couldn’t afford to buy a computer, learn how to operate it, pay monthly for an internet connection, and pay to keep the computer updated. And I don’t think anyone appreciates panhandlers! They do not make me feel better about myself, or about mankind. I do not want to give money to “help the homeless directly”, thats why I pay taxes!!!

Sbard September 4, 2008 at 1:03 pm

I remember reading in Blue Blood by Edward Conlon when the author realized that his junkie informant made more money panhandling outside of the NY tunnels than he did as an NYPD officer. When you realize what the cost of maintaining a years long, hardcore heroin or crack addiction, it’s not all that surprising that panhandlers can pull in the money they do, and how if you don’t have an addiction you can pull in a decent living if you work at it.

I also remember a friend in college telling me about a panhandler he saw in California who was playing the “wounded war veteran” schtick putting his sign in the trunk of a Corvette and driving off at the end of his day.

mt September 7, 2008 at 2:29 pm

From Mandeville:

“As Pity is often by our selves and in our own Cases mistaken for Charity, so it assumes the Shape, and borrows the very Name of it; a Beggar asks you to exert that Virtue for Jesus Christ’s sake, but all the while his great Design is to raise your Pity. He represents to your View the worst side of his Ailments and bodily Infirmities; in chosen Words he gives you an Epitome of his Calamities real or fictitious; and while he seems to pray God that he will open your Heart, he is actually at work upon your Ears; the greatest Profligate of them flies to Religion for Aid, and assists his Cant with a doleful Tone and a study’d Dismality of Gestures: But he trusts not to one Passion only, he flatters your Pride with Titles and Names of Honour and Distinction; your Avarice he sooths with often repeating to you the Smallness of the Gift he sues for, and conditional Promises of future Returns with an Interest extravagant beyond the Statute of Usury tho’ out of the reach of it. People not used to great Cities, being thus attack’d on all sides, are commonly [292]forc’d to yield, and can’t help giving something tho’ they can hardly spare it themselves. How oddly are we manag’d by Self-Love! It is ever watching in our Defence, and yet, to sooth a predominant Passion, obliges us to act against our Interest: For when Pity seizes us, if we can but imagine that we contribute to the Relief of him we have Compassion with, and are Instrumental to the lessening of his Sorrows, it eases us, and therefore pitiful People often give an Alms when they really feel that they would rather not.

When Sores are very bare or seem otherwise afflicting in an extraordinary manner, and the Beggar can bear to have them expos’d to the cold Air, it is very shocking to some People; ’tis a Shame, they cry, such Sights should be suffer’d; the main Reason is, it touches their Pity feelingly, and at the same time they are resolv’d, either because they are Covetous, or count it an idle Expence, to give nothing, which makes them more uneasy. They turn their Eyes, and where the Cries are dismal, some would willingly stop their Ears if they were not ashamed. What they can do is to mend their Pace, and be very angry in their Hearts that Beggars should be about the Streets. But it is with Pity as it is with Fear, the more we are conversant with Objects that excite either Passion, the less we are disturb’d by them, and those to whom all these Scenes and Tones are by Custom made familiar, they make little Impression upon. [293]The only thing the industrious Beggar has left to conquer those fortified Hearts, if he can walk either with or without Crutches, is to follow close, and with uninterrupted Noise teaze and importune them, to try if he can make them buy their Peace. Thus thousands give Money to Beggars from the same Motive as they pay their Corn-cutter, to walk easy. And many a Half-penny is given to impudent and designedly persecuting Rascals, whom, if it could be done handsomely, a Man would cane with much greater Satisfaction. Yet all this by the Courtesy of the Country is call’d Charity.”

Zude Onim September 20, 2008 at 5:31 pm

I’ve BEEN homeless, for more than short periods, due to a rare genetic illness that took more than a quarter-century to diagnose. The family that wouldn’t help because they were embarrassed by me now won’t have anything to do with me because they are even more embarrassed by how they treated me back then. (Ya gotta love human nature – it sure won’t love you.)

But I rarely give to beggars despite maybe being better able to discern who’s really in need (and I have nonetheless been fooled, not infrequently in fact.)

I wonder at all those who bleat one way or another about this subject but who never perform even a simple test (science often works as a very last resort, I find.) Offer to buy the beggar a dollar slice of pizza, since you’re on your way to get one yourself, a couple blocks away. If it’s hunger, they’ll follow. Send me a dime for every refusal and I’ll be rich. “That’s ok, I’m gonna buy myself a chicken dinner pretty soon anyway” was the very first response I got to that experiment.

What’s shocking is that all the do gooders don’t care to put up any system to sort out the deserving poor. It wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t be politically correct. Just desperately necessary. There really are people out there who need help and who can’t easily prove it. Making the fakery a real horror.

Douglas October 17, 2009 at 2:53 pm

Im writing a book on Panhandlers,and want too hear your stories.Tips -Ideas -techniques -I cant pay you anything (now) But if I use your stories/Information in My book Who knows where that could lead!Email me at stormdragonblood@yahoo.com Im also on Myspace
Leave your name & Email if you have one.Im a resident of Seattle,Wa. Im homeless and Panhandling as well as Writing several book nothing in print(Yet).

Roy January 11, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I was homeless for 18 months, so I am speaking from experience and first-hand knowledge. To begin, I never panhandled – instead, I sold my plasma and did odd jobs at businesses, such as cleaning up bottles after bars closed, for money. Most cities of any size have free service facilities that the homeless can use where they get free food, counseling, medical care assistance, a place to sleep, shelter from the elements and free clothes. There is absolutely no reason why a person in need should have to resort to begging – ruining the reputation and economy of a community – in order to survive. I even went so far as to spend a bit of the money I was paid for my plasma to buy a cane fishing pole. I fished and I foraged for roots and herbs – and I ate like a king under the bridge where I slept. I came to learn, first-hand, that the majority of those who panhandle do so because they “are” lazy, they want a free ride through life, they know that they don’t have to pay taxes on what they get from begging (and it is often quite a lot) so they are getting one over on the IRS, and they are either drug and-or alcohol addicts. As for the people that give to the beggars – they may think that they are doing a good deed, but they are actually feeding the destructive habits of these beggars, enabling them to remain destitute, and encouraging even more destructive habits to come. I thank God that I never stooped so low as to beg, and that I never once took a single cent that I did not earn by way of honest work or trade. Today, because I adhered to my morales and beliefs, I am no longer on the streets. Instead, I own three very nice businesses, and I am able to travel and enjoy life the way it was meant to be lived.

CB July 13, 2010 at 5:00 am

When the economy turned, I was forced to panhandle to make ends meet. I made a special sign, I will not share the sign content, and panhandled for eight hours on an expressway exit. I made $275, which is more than I make in a day on my job. I actually collected more than that, but I gave some to homeless people. It is an incredibly humiliating thing to do, but I can certainly understand why people panhandle for a living.

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