We see them every day, silently posted at numerous intersections around town holding cardboard signs pleading for help.
Dayton city and Montgomery County officials say people shouldn’t give cash to panhandlers. They say the money would be better spent given to a social service agency that can provide lasting help to these individuals, help they would be more likely to seek if people stopped handing them money.
I spent several hours on a recent, sunny Thursday morning speaking to panhandlers; asking them their stories.
Here’s some of what I learned:
1. Not all of them are homeless
“I don’t lie to people. I have an apartment. An efficiency,” said Robin, who stood at the intersection of U.S. 35 and Main Street in Downtown Dayton.
She said she’s been destitute since her boyfriend of 20 years died in August 2015. Her family helps pay for the apartment, she said, but she needs money for food and other necessities.
She says she can’t work because she’s disabled, but hasn’t been approved for social security disability; she also doesn’t get food stamps because she says she can’t meet the work requirement.
2. But some of them are
Several of those interviewed spent the night before at a local homeless shelter.
One man said he didn’t feel safe at the shelter, so he slept in an abandoned house. Another slept on the street because he didn’t want to stay at the shelter.
3. Not all of them are on drugs
Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said last week of panhandlers: “There is a large degree that are opiate addicted. Providing donation on the spot may be an immediate win-win, but would you rather provide a donation that supports long-term, sustainable addressing of those issues or provide money for the next quick fix.”
Several panhandlers interviewed were incensed by this statement, pulling up their shirt sleeves to show an absence of needle marks or offering to take a drug test. One said she was a recovering drug addict, but all emphatically denied using donated money for drugs.
“I’m no drug addict, sir. I don’t do drugs. I don’t do heroin,” said Abigail O’Neil, standing at the corner of Stewart Street and Patterson Boulevard holding a sign saying “Anything Helps. Thank U.”
O’Neil said she is trying to get disability and food stamps because mental issues such as bipolar disorder and PTSD prevent her from working.
4. But some of them are
The people I talked to did say some of the panhandlers they know do use the money for drugs. Charles Young, at the intersection of Smithville Road and U.S. 35, said he has seen others picked up for having needles on them.
Young said he took to panhandling about a month ago while he looks for a job.
O’Neil said drug addicts have tried to borrow her phone to call their dealers.
And of course, I can only tell the stories of those willing to talk to me. There were other men on the corners who refused to be interviewed or left when the notebook came out; whether they are the ones Dickstein was talking about is unknown.
Plus, while Dickstein appeared to be referring to drugs like heroin, several admitted one of the things they needed money for most was cigarettes.
5. The money isn’t great
Kyle — holding a sign saying “HOMELESS HUNGRY BROKE! God Bless” at Patterson Boulevard and Jefferson Street — said the most he makes is $10 to $15 a day standing out there three to four hours.
He said he lost his job in Zanesville and lived with a girlfriend in Columbus for some time before hitchhiking to Dayton. He is now at the men’s shelter while they try to help him get a copy of his birth certificate and a state ID so he can get a job; he lost his driver’s license because of unpaid fines.
“I just try to get enough money for cigarettes, something to eat, and bus money to where I’m trying to get for the day,” he said.
Matthew and Melissa Emrick, sitting on the landscaped island at Keowee Street and Wayne Avenue, said the most they’ve gotten in a day is $23 – enough for food at Wendy’s and some clean clothes.
They said Matthew lost his steady job about six months ago, and they are trying to get by until she can get student loans to live off of while she gets certified in HVAC.
6. But it can beat minimum wage
Robin and a couple others said they could get $50 to $60 on a good day.
Let’s do some math. Ohio’s minimum wage is $8.15 per hour. If you work this pay rate for 30 hours a week – the most many minimum wage employers will schedule you – you will gross $244.50 before taxes.
If you can get $50 a day panhandling for five days, that’s $250 – tax free, with no boss.
7. The choice on giving is yours
“It’s OK to say no,” is the central message of the new initiative, dubbed Real Change Dayton. It encourages people to use a text-to-give campaign, specialty parking meters and other things to give to agencies that will provide people lasting help.
Vetting the worthiness of every panhandler on every street corner would be impossible. As is forcing people to turn to agencies for help if they refuse.
As I stood on five intersections talking to these people, thousands of cars drove by. None of them gave, possibly because the person was busy talking to me. But each car represents a choice.
“If they don’t want to give us money, they don’t have to,” Robin said.