Panhandle: Strange Ways to Make Money

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.

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31 Responses to Panhandle: Strange Ways to Make Money

  1. David says:

    What a depressing, defeatist article! NO, panhandling is not like “starting any other business”: you’re not providing any particular product that people would want to purchase. Panhandlers do, conversely, prey on peoples’ kindness to satisfy their wants (not needs). They’re also using MY tax dollars for their benefit with no cost. If Joe is really a “businessman”, than he should be paying the city “rent” for his particular corner, shouldn’t he? Let’s also not kid ourselves that Joe’s not being deceitful: he’s not exactly carrying around a sign reading “want money…not responsibilities”, is he?
    Finally, it is probably not a good idea to advise people to explore a “career” that comes coupled with a criminal delict (tax evasion).

  2. snshijuptr says:

    This is another reason why charity should be given to legitimate non-profit organizations. As much as people gripe about the overhead in groups like Goodwill and Red Cross, at least they are employing people in real jobs and helping people facing true disasters. Spare Change Charity is so often bunk that it just never makes sense.

  3. michael says:

    hi i live in salen oregon and i see people out pandhandling on a lot of street corners well one dady i was walking by safeway and two pandhandlers were fighting about who could be on that corner i thought that was pretty crazy panhandling is not my bag but your right i have heard that you can make a lot of money doing it

  4. Joan.of.the.Arch says:

    Are you just pretending to have interviewed someone so that you could have something to say in a blog? Joe gave you all these tips, including preachy ones to not lie and obey the law? Joe told you about his supportive wife and kids? Is this a paid blog, anyhow? If so, I think you can add to the list of strange ways to make money: Make up stories and blog them as if they were true. I don’t know; this entry feels like grasping at straws to have something to say.

  5. Jennifer says:

    @ Joan: FWIW, I didn’t make this up. I did edit some of his comments for clarity and simplicity, but the meaning of what he said remains intact. Joe was less a panhandler than a typical suburban guy. He could have been anyone in my neighborhood. That was why I chose to write about him — he was different and his story was different. He isn’t a panhandler in the typical sense. I think he really did view this as sort of a business opportunity. That’s why he offered up the tips, including the “preachy” tips. He doesn’t want to take advantage of people or encourage others to do so. He just shared what he has found works for him and keeps him out of trouble and allows him to make a sizable sum of money. I guess the preachy tips keep him out of trouble with his conscience, too, although the whole tax evasion thing made me wonder.

    Now, he could have made up his family and what not, I don’t know. I asked a question and he answered. Maybe he has a family and maybe not. Likely he does, though, given where he said he lived. Whether they’re really supportive, I couldn’t say. I know I’d have a hard time being supportive of this, but maybe the wife is different.

    I hope this clarifies this post a little bit for you.

  6. Matt says:

    My old man always told me that all honest work is honorable. Is panhandling honest? Not sure. Maybe a time will come when I have no other choice but to ask for handouts…at least if that time ever comes I’ll know to bring a dog. BUT, then you gotta cover the cost of dog food, shots, grooming…so there’s some overhead right there. Shoot…O.K., then what about sunscreen to keep the skin cancer away, because obviously paying for your own health insurance is a little bit pricy…they will jack the rates up on you for sure if you get skin cancer…so copious amounts of sunscreen, dog food, grooming for the dog, treats and shots…dang. Makes me wish it was all tax deductible. Oh wait I’m not paying any taxes. So, hey, it’s a slow week over at PFA headquarters and they got the NFL season kickoff to contend with so they figured nobody would be reading this anyway. In conclusion, don’t panhandle unless it’s your last resort.

  7. asmom says:

    Is this for real? Begging?!! Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t care for the 9-to-5 grind myself but I really get off on eating and having a place to stay. How is this guy different from a welfare queen? He’s able-bodied but he chooses to beg for money because applying for jobs was just too much trouble. Geesh…….

  8. AK Student says:

    I have to do a project with my group but how do they avoid the police? (Our project is trying to stop panhandling, we’re HG, and young teens.)

  9. Preston says:

    By the way, you dont need so stop people from panhandling.There are some ”honest” panhandlers out there. Some of them truly are honestly down and out and cannot find any work. Day in and day out have looked non stop for work but fail to find something. Dont try to stop panhandling. Its by far the last step for the homeless when they truly are down and out and hungry. Leave them alone. They aren’t bothering you. If you dont want to give them money just say no and goodluck. Better yet, go down to your local mission and see what the homeless life truly is about. Maybe your eyes would be opened to start helping theese people instead of condemning them. In my eyes, your way worse than a drug addict needle pushing bum ass no good lazy :panhandler:. Find something else to complain about like our government.god day.

  10. melissa says:

    dude were homeless we are trying to make a living god at least were not ignorant like the rich shoot were trying to make a living all the stupid mexicans are taking out jobs get off your higgh horses and step into our shoes you high class stuck up ignorant ools from hell

  11. Saer says:

    There are a lot of very aggressive and negative comments here.

    I have been and am about to be homeless. The first time I was homeless for about 2 months. In that time to avoid stealing to eat I panhandled. My story was legitimate (my father kicked me out, need food), I used the money for exactly what I said I would, and I never, ever harassed people. I didn’t make great money but that’s largely because I stopped as soon as I made the money I needed (usually $10). Halfway through I realized I could offer portraits and tarot readings in exchange for money. Most people didn’t the time for it so they would just give me money. I think being clean, articulate, and polite helped my venture immensely.

    Panhandling was a huge hit to my pride and ego. It was embarrassing and extremely difficult with my social anxiety disorder. But I did it, because I had to. When my father accepted me back into his house I immediately stopped panhandling.

    Yes, panhandling is not the most honorable job but to look down on it so harshly is a bit close minded I think. There are those that panhandle to buy drugs (the whole ‘money for beer’ spiel is silly. You give money for beer, they buy crack.) but there are those who are legitimately down on their luck, as I was and am. Life is not so black and white.

    I am about to leave Ohio for Oregon, returning in June to attend school on my brand-spanking new financial aid (so excited!). I will panhandle, fly signs at rest stops, and perform in cities. What is so wrong with helping a girl on her journey? If you don’t want to donate to a panhandler, don’t, but do not judge without acumen. The reasons for their pleas, their honesty, their future, are all as varied as those who hold ‘real’ jobs. We are just as much people as you, there is no black and white for either us or you. Keep an open mind and open heart, see what you can find.

  12. Chris says:

    My teen niece in Texas (she is 17 now) is a very high IO girl whose father committed suicide when she was 4. She opted to quit high school and become a homeless person in Austin, Tx near downtown…panhandling for money and hopping trains (she says) and ended up in California where she was under age without a guardian and picked up by the police. Her mother had to fly out and pick her up, then returned her to a bus stop. The girl was said to be perfectly OK when taken to a psychologist after her father died. However, from age 12 onward she slipped into the Goth scene and look, then dying her hair weird colors and wearing gun shell necklaces, then smoking a little marijuana in her bedroom. This is an attractive, highly intelligent person…who hates all establishment and authority…with a conservative, heart broken mother who works hard and is beside herself. The school was of no help and would not let her attend a special school because her grades were too high…which set the tone for the girl to want to just move out on her own…living in shelters or who knows where…..she even boasts about panhandling….is this a trend???

  13. Zach says:

    hows college going!?

  14. Willam says:

    You should ALWAYS give money to people who are standing on a street corner!! NEVER give money to ‘legitimate charities’. Hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars are sucked INTO charities in America, NEVER to be seen again, all it does is employ a bunch of people and social workers who just tell you to go see another social worker blah blah blah. OR HOW ABOUT HAITI!?!?!?!!?!?! ALMOST A BILLION total donated between donations and government money, AND THE PLACE IS A FREAKING MESS!!!! Every Haitian COULD have a 2 Bedroom HOUSE and the ENTIRE Island transformed into a PARADISE for that kind of money. Look around, Do you see Catholic Family Charities, Goodwill, Salvation Army or ANY charity helping people out with CASH!? NOPE!! Yet they take in literally BILLIONS of dollars, then they want to sell you crap at their little stores for TWICE what it costs at WALMART and people are STUPID enough to buy it.

    Im a MILITARY DISABLED VETERAN, and the best I could get when I was homeless??? A couple BAGS OF RICE!!!. I made a sign and saved up A LOT of money and squared my life away and I say THANK YOU for anyone who has EVER handed a guy a dollar or twenty when asked!!!

  15. Stalene says:

    I personally think that this man is doing what he can. Being a girl who comes from “not such a great neighborhood” and seeing the homeless that walk past my house everyday, I have seen the best and the worst come out of people. I have seen people who give up on asking for money and just start prostituting. I have also seen people who have succeeded from asking for money to going to work for the 9-5 grind and they had to do it to survive. Don’t judge people for looking out for themselves, everyone has to live.

  16. Edward T. says:

    Thank You for this story, I very much enjoyed it. I’m 45 and homeless since October 25th, 2012. I am estranged from my family ( those still living )for 25 years and have recently failed to get 2 of them to let other family members know how to contact me. I think every day about begging so I can save my life and future, and maybe locate family members who are decent. I am being helped by an organization that has emergency night shelters 7 months of the year, and have to deal with doctors from the county which is difficult. Homeless people are people too.

  17. Armando says:

    Obviously, you’re not familiar with Wall St executives. At least panhandlers “entertain” you. With Wall St. execs, all you get are layoffs.

  18. Bob Lew says:

    I worked hard all my life until accidents screwed up my back and knees so now I have to make do on SSDI. It hardly covers anything and occasionally I will panhandle for extra income. Do I feel guilty? No. The jobs I worked for over 30 years put me at risk and I always paid my taxes, so I was definitely a contributor to our society. For the past 4 years it’s been hard to find a job for most people but especially older people. One or two dollars won’t break anybody…

  19. Ren says:

    I just want to say for people thinking churches and charity’s should only handle help services , and they can’t get duped or are fair with it, think again,They may have people working there to handle it, but most of the people are volunteers with no training to spot the ones who really need help and those that don’t, and sometimes you get racist bigoted people only willing to help the people who resemble themselves. ( Have been discriminated against been strait out told because I am white I do not qualify)Meanwhile the people who don’t need,with a car, a house, and a job spending there money on crap get, Id rather a person deem where their money goes and does not go choose to help or not, then a corrupt money making charity out to get the biggest government hand out (research)

  20. Jen says:

    Saer, too bad you didn’t realize how awful the Oregon economy is before you decided to go to college here. I hope you are able to survive on FinAid. My stepdaughter just got her master’s from UO and even at age 25 with seven years of job experience (the usual, fast food, retail, office staff, paid internships, etc) she can’t find a job to start paying on her $100K of student loans. Oregon seems like it is liberal but trust me it isn’t and the cops in Oregon are SUPER hard on homeless and panhandlers even aggressively arresting (sometimes shooting) homeless and panhandlers that they decide are some kind of threat. The harassment by cops of low income/no income people makes headlines daily here esp. in Portland and Eugene. The best places to panhandle are the rest stops but some established panhandlers in rest stops can be quite “combative” so please be safe. The attitudes towards low income/no income people in Oregon are really, really nasty and the “safety net” charities are the worst. For some strange reason even though the recession hit Oregon very hard on top of years of losing timber industry money, the people here who have even a dollar-an-hour-over-minimum-wage jobs seem to think they are oh so superior to the jobless, the homeless, and the soon to be so. I mistakenly moved here before the previous recession leaving a fabulous job in another state under the mistaken impression I could start my dream business in Oregon. Instead Oregon turned out to be a decade and a half complete nightmare. My advice to you is as soon as you get your degree use the last of your FinAid money and go somewhere with a better economy! Your very survival will depend on it. Sign me: destitute and getting moreso daily.

  21. Jen says:

    Hi William and YES YOU ARE CORRECT about the high profile charities. Case in point: St Vincent DePaul in Eugene Oregon just signed a lease on an ultra fancy new office building to house its area administrators – while telling the destitute and unfortunate and soon-to-be homeless that there is “no money” to help them. Worse yet the SVDP employees are advising people to fraudulently file for Social Security Disability when they are not disabled – happened to a friend of mine just last month when she approached them for rental assistance with the SVDP website says it offers to help prevent homelessness. They told her to go to the Eugene Mission to live and “accept and embrace homelessness” – yeah, those words – and file for disability benefits even though she isn’t disabled. I wonder if the federal government is aware that this charity is doing this kind of thing, telling people to defraud the government!

  22. Allan says:

    You my friend are uneducated about homeless people, or non homeless people who aren’t employed to no fault of their own.

    I was homeless for two years do to situations that where not under my control from age 17 to 19. I begged a bit, and didn’t like it. I was also using my brain to imagine making a living some other way while begging. I watched other human(s) washing car windows at self-serve gas stations and realized they made more money than begging in my experience, and I averaged $10/hour. A lot of people who were washing car windows like beggars where doing it for a drink or to get high and didn’t dress very well. Washing car windows is working not begging.

    So, I started washing car windows, but I was dressing in clean work cloths, and stayed in one spot for 8 to 10 hours until I made $100 for the day. In the mean time, I was still looking for a 9 to 5 from time to time so that I could hopefully land a job. Not everybody who is out of work or homeless is scamming, actually most of them aren’t scamming anyone at all FYI. Surviving is a very noble thing to do, opinions like yours holds no value and no truth which makes you very ignorant.

    If I didn’t do these things I would not have survived. I never in my life have use drugs or use alcohol. I never hurt or bothered anyone when asking for money when begging, that was only in their small thinking brain(s) if they thought that way. I never cussed anyone out or flipped them off. I never lied why I was homeless, I was always clean because I took showers at a local community center and stayed away from the shelters because they waste peoples time for those who really want to get off the streets. Shelters in most cases will have you wait up to 4 to 8 hours to take a shower. In that time, I could be looking for a job and clean up somewhere else much faster.

    That was 23 years ago.

    Now with the way things are with the economy and the ever escalating job discrimination with American companies, which by the way I have been a victim of it for the past three years. I’m almost out of money, I have to survive and I am married with no kids. I have been thinking a lot of begging with a sign again after all this time to take care of my wife and myself. My wife is in East Africa, where I plan to move to, because that is where she is from. I’m stuck here now and had plans to save money before I moved. Well to no fault of my own for the second time in my life, just like many others are in a situation of being out of work and homeless. My wife depends on me to send her $200 a month for rent, food, and among other necessities. I need to raise $20,000 before I can go there. That is not too much to ask for when we can live on that for three years and start a small business in Nairobi to be self-employed. I also have to pay for the plane ticket which cost between $1500 to $2500 depending on what time of the year you buy the ticket.

    For the last 23 years, my profession has been in computer training, IT for SOHO/SMBs, and sales. I have made a lot of companies a lot of money and being highly trained does not guarantee work. Once I make that money, I’m leaving and your ignorant self will never have to complain about me again. Homeless people begging on the streets have not been and will never be the cause of anyone’s problems in this country the (United States) or any other.

    Knowledge is power! Get some!

  23. Trina says:

    My dad used to know a pan-handler that stood at the same busy corner. He knew him personally. Way before the recession, this guy had a full-time 9-5 job. He would pan-handle every weekend. With the money he’d buy his wife a new car every year and donate the old one. The way I see it, if people want to give you a few bucks, then do it… it’s ultimately up to the person giving whether or not the pan handler’s keep doing it. And to be honest – I’ve made a small living off of it when I was homeless and no one would hire me, all because I was homeless. It’s a cruel world, and when you get caught up in that cycle, homelessness, jobless, ect. it can be very hard to get out of it.

  24. Jon Doe says:

    After losing my job of 9 years 2 years ago,and losing all my personal belongings and place to live,I fly a sign daily.I do so without shame. I make a living at it,and dont go hungry. Leave panhandlers alone.If you dont ewant to give,then dont give.

  25. zoey says:

    One day i was humgry
    And i decided to ask for money from a stranger. Within minutes my belly was full. I hav mental illness and have suffered 32 yrs w it. Bfor panhadling id.starve didnt hav soap and was getting real bitter at mankind
    Im a christian and hating pp alarmed me. The kimdness of ppl amazes me. God bless them all

  26. Pingback: Just a little change?? | Musings by an ND Domer's Mom

  27. Robert Wood says:

    What jobs???

  28. Eris Kaos says:

    You’re absolutely right, William! I’ve worked for two big charities and most of the money goes to staff and…who knows?

    I am going out tomorrow for my first day of panhandling. I’m a some-what disabled woman on very low social security payments. My rent just went up by $125 a month. I’ve been to many, many charities – they will not give money, which is what the very poor need – duh!

    I hope people who see me will realize that an old woman on oxygen is a legitimate “begger.”

  29. Lah says:

    Wow ignorance is still T an all time high isn’t it
    Pan handlers are all kinda of people just like politicions Police men, waitress, sales men and we know there all real honest
    I am a single mother of two kids
    I worked two jobs and started my own business
    I am now homeless and have no job
    I’ve been to the churches and shelters and I look for a job every day stl
    But at the end if a the day if I need to fed my kids hell yes I will hold a sigh
    The first time I did this I was robbed and stranded with my two kids
    In one hour I made 160 dollars another day I made 20
    So it’s really about where and when from what I’ve been taught since loosing it all including my house. There are honest beggars and dishonest ones
    There are some who do it by choice and some who have no choice like me
    Even if I have 1000 dollars no one will rent to me with out a job and guarantee for next month rent so my choice is a hotel or my kids in the truck with our dog
    After a hotel I have nothing ! Many of u are so stupid down rite stupid to the realities of life !!!!!! I dnt lie I dnt steal but for my kids I will beg to feed them thx for the stupidity
    Ignorance must be bliss !!

  30. Pat says:

    Desperate times call for desperate measures. I am a 53 year old mother of 4 that has dedicated my life to raising my children, and therefore there is no help in the system for me. I am in desperate need of meds and medical care I cannot afford and I am not eligible for free care for the stupidist reasons. I am to the point that I am ready to stand on a street corner but I am afraid of the people out there that would can could possibly hurt me. so today I will venture out and see where it leads me.

  31. Ondria says:

    Allen, you are so right, yeah there are few who really take advantage of good hearted people, but the most of them who beg REALLY ARE doing the best they can. This is a tough world to live in, especially now with the way employment, and the economy are going in the united states. I gave a guy $100 one day cause he had 2 kids and really looked depressed on the corner of Walmart, I was actually going to use the money to buy some clothes that I needed for work, but I felt it was better to give, cause they needed it more than I did. My mother taught me that it’s on me whether I give or don’t give, and it’s on the begger what they do with what you give, in the end, we will be answering to God for our actions. Whether you believe in God or not, idk, but I do.

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