Panhandling to survive

James Dodson supports himself with a cane standing near a Walmart on Indianapolis’ southside. Frail hands hold a cardboard sign asking for help. “I been out here a couple of hours and I ain’t made a thing,” says Dodson, 78. Dodson suffers from severe arthritis and his income is a government disability check for $800 a month. He uses the $60–$80 a week he earns from panhandling for food and to pay friends to stay in their homes. He says he does not drink or use drugs, but is critical of his fellow panhandlers. “Nine out of ten of them will use it for alcohol and that’s stupid,” he says, “They come out to get them enough [money] to get them a bottle … and that ain’t no good.”

Tens of thousands panhandle

Dodson is typical of panhandlers in Indianapolis — some homeless, some not — who panhandle to supplement government assistance.

On any day there could be 18,000–31,000 men and women rooted on street corners and highway rampspanhandling in American cities. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) estimates 3–5 percent of the 630,000 homeless population panhandles. It seems that moving these people so they are not seen is that answer, as Donald Trump did in front of Trump Tower in New York. On milk cartons, suitcases holding all their belongings or just on a piece of cardboard they sit, quietly, passively, begging for money.

Passive or agressive

In Indianapolis, 50–80 may panhandle daily out of a homeless population estimated in 2012 at 1,647 by the Indianapolis Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention.

As in many other cities, panhandling is viewed legally in two ways —passive and aggressive — the former being constitutional and the latter possibly ending in jail time.

Good money for some

Sporting a Santa Claus cap, Fred, 53, sits at an intersection in downtown Indianapolis. “On a busy day I’m making close to $75–100 ...

on a slow day I make about $50,” he says. Fred has worked this particular corner since 2008 and says food stamps and money from panhandling is his only income. “I got about 40 or 50 regular customers now,” he says. He says nearby restaurant workers often provide him food. Fred describes himself as homeless, although lately he pays $5 a night to sleep on someone's couch.

He says he spends the $400 he earns weekly like anyone else; buying food, clothes and other necessities. He doesn't use drugs but drinks alcohol daily, but won't say how much. “Well, it depends on how much money I get every day, but I like to save some for when I have to go shopping.” NCH in a 2009 study admits , “… rates of alcohol and drug abuse are disproportionately high among the homeless population,” but adds that it believes “the increase in homelessness over the past two decades cannot be explained by addiction alone.”

Panhandling in perspective

Asked if he really considers panhandling a job, Fred replies: “No, sir.". “I don’t like this [panhandling] though,” he continues. "This is boredom.

But if they pay me to sit right here and give me money, that’s a good thing for me,” he says. In his book, “Begging on the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London,” T. Hitchcock, estimated in 1776, there were some 15,288 beggars in London. One of every 62 people compared to one out of every 10,255 in Indianapolis today. Some groups in Indianapolis provide assistance, but not with money.

Using food, not money to help

Meet Me under the Bridge, a faith-based nonprofit has provided hot meals, clothing and toiletries to the homeless since 2005. Each Sunday the group meets at a homeless encampment and serves a hot meal to all.. “I don’t think that’s [money] helping them, says the group's director Kathy Albright.

Whether to give money or food to panhandlers is helpful or harmful remains a question without a definitive answer for some individuals, faith-based organizations and established agencies. "It’s such a fine line between helping and hurting,” said Kathy Albright as she watched dozens of homeless men and women line up to eat.

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