When you think of panhandling, you probably think of the homeless and the desperate. It would never be something that a white collar professional would engage in. Would it? If you think the answer is, “No,” here’s a story for you. There is a man who panhandles near my office and I walk past him nearly everyday. He stands on his corner with his dog and asks for money. His sign simply says, “Need money. Please give.” He’s not a scary looking guy and is always polite to passerby. He’s been there for almost a year. I have to admit that I’ve been really curious about this guy. He seems like a smart, decent guy — not at all what you think of when you think of a panhandler. So one day my curiosity got the better of me and I gave him five dollars and asked if he would talk to me for a minute. He agreed. I have no idea what his name is (don’t ask, don’t tell), so I’ll call him Joe for this piece.
I asked him what he’d done before he started panhandling. To my surprise, he used to be an engineer. He got laid off a couple of years ago and quickly got fed up with job hunting and filing for unemployment. He tried to start his own business, but it didn’t take off as quickly as he’d hoped. During this time of un/underemployment, he realized that he really hated the 9 to 5 grind. He looked into some other lines of work, but couldn’t really find anything. A friend dared him to panhandle for one day and boom, he found his calling.
“I loved being outside and meeting people. I loved setting my own hours and working when I wanted to. I didn’t have a nasty boss hanging over my shoulder telling me what to do. The freedom was wonderful.”
“But you don’t make much money, do you? How can you live on this money?” I asked.
“In a good year, I clear around $55,000 in cash, tax free. Since everything is paid in cash, I don’t pay taxes. This is probably close to the equivalent of an $80,000 per year job. I live in [here he named a neighborhood in town that's not super wealthy, but it known for it's well off residents]. It’s not a bad life. I just have to buy my own health insurance.”
Wow. I had no idea that panhandling could be so lucrative. Setting aside the ethics of not paying taxes, I moved on.
“What do your neighbors think?” I asked.
“They don’t know. I tell people that I’m self employed and most simply assume it’s in my former profession,” Joe said.
“Do you have a family?”
“A wife and two kids. They’re okay with this. The kids think it’s an adventure, and it sort of is. My wife is just happy that the money comes in.”
“Will you ever go back to a real job?” I asked.
“Probably someday. This is fun for now, but I can’t imagine doing it forever. When the economy improves, I may try to start my business again.”
“Why the dog?” I asked. It’s a cute dog, some sort of mutt. He’s very friendly and loving, too.
“The dog puts people at ease. He’s friendly and sweet. People like to pet him and talk to him. People end up giving me money after they’ve petted the dog. It’s like they’re paying to play with the dog.”
(Personally, I think there’s a sympathy thing going on where people think he can’t feed the dog so they give money, but Joe didn’t admit to this and I wasn’t there to push him into confession.)
Joe said that, like any successful venture, successful panhandling seems to depend on having a lure. Offer something that other panhandlers don’t. Joe has his dog. Then there’s the traditional window washer. I saw a man on the news who tells you a joke when you give him money. Someone else I’ve seen will recite you a Bible verse. Joe told me about a former counselor who would offer advice. If you can give people something for their money, you’ll fare better than the ones who just ask for money and give nothing in return.
I asked Joe what was the strangest thing he’d ever been given. Since not everyone gives money, I was curious.
“I’ve gotten food, gift cards, dog food for the dog, handmade crafts, and bags of toiletries. But the strangest ting was the tools. A guy gets out of his car, pulls this old toolbox out of his trunk and hands it over. He said he’d been cleaning out his dad’s garage and found it. He didn’t need it, so he gave it away. ‘Learn a trade, man,’ he said and drove off. I thought it was funny, but those tools have come in handy.”
If you want to take up panhandling, here are some more tips from Joe.
Don’t lie: Don’t put up a sign saying you’re homeless if you’re not. Don’t say you have six kids if you don’t. It’s fine to ask for money; after all people can simply say no. But don’t trick people into giving you money.
Don’t be hostile or rude: If someone doesn’t want to give, or only gives you pennies, don’t make sarcastic comments, flip them the bird, or tell them off. Just say, “Thank you,” or “Have a nice day,” and move on.
Obey local laws: In most areas it’s not totally illegal to panhandle. However, there are likely restrictions on where and when you can do it You may also have to register with the municipality and become a licensed beggar. Learn the rules and follow them, unless you want a night in jail.
Dress well, but not too well: You don’t want to look scary or freakish because that scares people away. However, if you look too nice people will assume you have no need of money and ignore you. Jeans and t-shirts are good choices, according to Joe.
Don’t be aggressive or threatening: Don’t chase people, don’t get in their faces, and don’t make threats to coerce them out of their money. Politely ask if they will give and leave it at that.
Accept whatever is given: If you get gift cards you can’t use, you can trade them for ones you will use online or with other people. If you get liquor (it happens), you can give it away at Christmas. If someone wants to buy you lunch, let them. Cash is great, but other things have value so turn nothing away.
Never panhandle when drunk or high: Not only is it illegal in many places to be publicly under the influence, it scares people off and may make you say or do something that can get you in real trouble.
Panhandling isn’t for everyone and there are some questionable ethics involved in pursuing this when other options as available to you. (Not to mention the tax thing.) You can argue that someone who can work and is educated shouldn’t be panhandling. However, I could also argue that a lot of educated people shouldn’t be in their chosen professions, either. In a free market economy, if someone like Joe can make a living by panhandling, he has that right, as long as he isn’t forcing people to give him money. People pay for a lot of stupid things, so if they want to give him their money, they can and he can accept it.
I don’t know if Joe is right to be panhandling or not. On one hand, I think he should get a job. But on the other, I find myself thinking that if he can make money doing this, he enjoys it, and isn’t hurting anyone or doing anything illegal, then there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s kind of like starting any other business. You do what people will pay for and people pay him. I never would have thought that panhandling could or would be a career choice, but apparently it can be.