Rubin: The give-and-take with panhandlers

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
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Jesse Hunt wanted to be a pilot. He wound up sleeping under a bridge.

Jesse Hunt sits on his motorized wheelchair along Eight Mile and the Interstate 75 frontage road in Detroit where he has panhandled for 30 years.

“That bridge,” he says, pointing to an Eight Mile overpass, 50 yards away.

He’s 73, sitting in a metallic red three-wheeled mobility scooter along the service drive. He’s popular with the local pigeons, and the one he calls George has just eased into a landing on his left knee. There’s a cardboard sign mounted on the scooter that reads, “Please Help Hungry.”

Technically, he’s not hungry. He’s sharing a large bag of Chex Mix with the pigeons. He’s not homeless anymore, either; the V.A. found him an apartment. But he’s old and poor, and long ago he was a child with dreams.

Should you give him money?

When third-grade teachers ask sweet-faced students what they want to be when they grow up, nobody says panhandler. Nobody sets out to spend dreary days asking strangers for quarters, standing in the heat or snow while people in $40,000 pickups roll down their windows and holler, “Get a job!”

“A fighter pilot,” Hunt says. “All the girls, man.”

But that didn’t work out, and neither did much of anything else. So he takes a bus from Brush and Warren to the State Fair Transit Center and steers his scooter east from there, hoping to collect $20 a day to buy food and soap and help pay the cable bill.

Should you give him money? If you’re inclined or inspired to donate a dollar, is it a good thing to do?

No, says Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. The more comfortable panhandlers get, the less likely they are to seek life-altering help.

Yes, says Gwendolyn Dordick, a sociologist who has studied begging and the culture of homelessness. If that’s your disposition, give without guilt: “It’s a horrible way to make a living.”

Maybe, says Cheryl Johnson, CEO of the Coalition on Temporary Shelter. An organization like COTS can do more good with $10 than 10 panhandlers can with $1 apiece, “but every now and again I see someone and there’s a reaction in my heart.”

Joann Poff, who is homeless, sits near I-75 at 12 Mile in Madison Heights.

Please, says Joann Poff.

She’s sitting on the guardrail of the 11 Mile exit ramp off northbound I-75 in Madison Heights. Usually, she’s upright; she has found that she makes more money that way, maybe $25 across a full day. But her right big toe is bruised and broken, so on this warm afternoon she sits.

Most panhandlers, studies say, are not homeless. Poff is. Her husband died, her house burned, and she’s staying in a shelter in Warren. A woman in a black Jeep has just given her $5 — it’s Friday, and people are more generous on paydays — but three young men in a battered white hearse cluttered with junk food wrappers stop at the red light and stare straight ahead.

“Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be out here,” says Poff, 58. She figured she’d work in a factory, which in fact she did, and her life would be orderly and comfortable, which at least for awhile it was.

In her daydreams, though, back when anything seemed possible, she wanted to make a living with a pen, not a punch press.

She wanted to be a poet.

Average take: Less than $25

Panhandlers can be annoying. On that, most everyone can agree, including the people asking for money.

The late T.C. Latham, one of the more insistent members of the brotherhood in downtown Detroit, used to pester the same passersby every day. Asked why, he would testily explain, “Because I’m hungry every day!”

In August, Harper Woods passed an ordinance designed to cut down on panhandling at major intersections and freeway exits. Since courts have held that begging is free speech, the law is written as an enhancement to traffic safety. City officials also pointed out that heck, a lot of the panhandlers aren’t homeless anyway.

That’s true, according to research elsewhere. What’s not true is that a high percentage of panhandlers are earning hefty incomes and driving home to the suburbs in late-model cars — though a small number are, a reality that pollutes the landscape for the truly needy.

One study in Toronto reported a median monthly income for panhandlers of $300. Four years ago in San Francisco, an association of property owners commissioned a survey that put the average take at less than $25 per day, with 94 percent of respondents claiming they used the money for food.

The perception remains — and again, is sometimes true — that the dollar bills dangled out automobile windows purchase booze, drugs and cigarettes. To that, Dordick responds ... So what?

“It’s embedded in our culture about the poor,” says the tenured lecturer at City College of New York. “It’s their fault, and we have to help them have the right values.”

Dordick wrote a paper with a Columbia University economist suggesting that if panhandlers were required to obtain revocable credentials, it would help donors give with confidence and non-donors report overly aggressive solicitations.

It would also help separate begging, a labor market activity, from homelessness, a housing market activity.

On a southbound I-75 frontage road in Detroit, Pete Bello’s story puts him in both categories.

Pete Bello holds his sign as he panhandles along I-75 frontage road near 8 Mile Road in Ferndale on Friday September 15, 2017.

Personal choice

Bello is 43 and somber. He has a tribal tattoo around his right eye and more ink on his neck and scalp. He has back problems, and he’s leaning on a crutch he found in a burned-out house much like the one where he’s squatting. The crutch is charred black.

“Nobody wants to hire a guy with no address,” Bello says. A criminal record doesn’t help, either; most recently, he says, he served time for printing fake GM payroll checks.

His sign says he’s willing to do yardwork, but there are no takers. He doesn’t blame anyone for being wary — “A lot of people out here are big-time (drug) users” — though he wishes they wouldn’t hurl insults and empty cans.

“This is how I live. How I eat,” he says, so he’s used to it. It’s a humorless existence. But ask him about the ambition that came with innocence, all those years ago, and he can’t help but smile.

He wanted to be a cop.

So should you give him money?

Matthew asks motorists for assistance at Eight Mile and John R.

Should you dispense cash to Matthew, 46, who is humiliated to be seen by former classmates from Warren and wanted to be a baseball player? Or to Krista, 39, due any day with her fifth child, who wanted to be a nurse? Or to Duane, 74, who needs clean socks, has one tooth and wanted to be a doctor?

Gray, of the homeless action network, will sometimes pass along food, or a card with a list of resources like soup kitchens. But her focus is homelessness, and a lot of people whose cardboard signs make that claim are lying.

Even if they’re not, “it’s already hard to engage that population,” she reasons. “In a way, money discourages them from coming in to get services.”

At COTS, Johnson says it’s simply a personal choice. Reach out, hold back ... either way, “it’s not a bad thing.”

But is it a selfish thing? Another school of thought says it’s more about the benefactor than the beggar, a donation designed to make the giver feel aglow.

Well, yes, says Dornick. That’s the point. Transactions with panhandlers are unusual, in that no goods or services are involved: “They’re asking you for something with nothing in return, other than a good feeling.”

The panhandlers, in essence, are Jesse Hunt’s pigeons. He gives, they take, he smiles.

Then they go their way and he goes his, back to the bus stop, a pilot at the yoke of his three-wheeled electric jet.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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