Readers’ personal experiences with panhandlers are all over the ballpark — which only confirms the main point of my front-page column Monday: You can’t tell whether panhandlers are legit just by looking.
And that’s why I refuse to give any of them a dime.
I was inundated with responses after I wrote about accompanying an Akron landlord who asked five panhandlers whether they would be willing to help with chores such as painting. To the surprise of both of us, all five wanted to work.
Or, as I said in the column, at least they said they wanted to work.
A bunch of readers claimed I was crazy for believing those people might actually follow through. But other readers demanded to know why, given the evidence we collected, I still believed that the majority of beggars are frauds who are making good money off people who are tricked into believing the poor souls have tried every other avenue before stooping to panhandling.
In a sense, both sides are correct.
The most compelling evidence comes from a fellow named Leonard Wilson.
Wilson was a longtime panhandler in Montrose. We wrote about him and published his photo in April, right after Fairlawn passed its panhandling law.
The day that story came out, a reader drove to Wilson’s corner and offered him a three-week job tending the grounds at a day-care center. He performed so well that he was hired and now works there four hours a day, six days a week.
But Wilson says the vast majority of panhandlers aren’t like him because they simply don’t want to work.
“I was out there for a year,” he says, “so I know who’s legit and who’s not legit.”
He talks about one colleague who was so successful at begging that he bought a diamond ring, a new car and a 50-inch flat-screen TV.
“He said he was making $1,800 a month,” Wilson says.
That’s an annual income of $21,600 — tax free.
Still, Wilson says, his own year of begging probably prevented him from going back to prison (after being out for 20 years) because he was homeless and separated from his family of four, and panhandling “kept me above water.”
He’s in much better shape now, although he still is hoping for additional work.
Many other folks say Wilson is an aberration — including a minister who has spent years attempting to assist the poor.
The Rev. Duane Crabbs is pastor of South Street Ministries and helps run a soup kitchen. He says he has offered any number of panhandlers temporary jobs and “not a single one was willing to work.”
Consultant and writer Ned Parks says he made the rounds in Montrose and couldn’t find a soul who wanted a job because they were making too much money.
“One fellow shared with me how much he makes,” Parks says. “He kept very good records. His average over a couple of months was $72 per day — better than minimum wage.” At one point, Parks went into a Speedway and bought a beggar milk and a sandwich and “he had the damn nerve to complain to me that since I bought it for him, he did not get his Speedway rewards points.”
But Parks quips, “At least he had a baseline understanding of economics and business.”
One reader said she gave a man a $20 bill and “he was so busy talking on his cell phone he never even thanked me.”
Another reader reported seeing a beggar she recognized blow $50 at a bingo game.
A woman in Wooster said her husband handed business cards to beggars and never got a call.
A woman in Medina said a beggar agreed to wash windows at her house. He had no transportation, so she promised to pick him up two days later. He didn’t show.
In stark contrast, Akron landlord Arne Englehart declares, “Beggars will work!”
“I own rentals and, with my mower and weed whacker in the van, have actually picked up four to six panhandlers in the past to do yard maintenance and painting.
“One lady has worked for me over five years cleaning units, and I must have paid her hundreds of dollars. She has now gotten into Section 8 housing, thank God.”
Englehart says some folks have substandard social skills or medical problems that prevent them from getting real jobs.
“Panhandling is the best job available for them, and I see no reason why our politicians want to restrict them from working.”
So ... what about the five folks who told landlord Gene Testa they wanted to work for him?
His top choice, a man named Justin, whom we encountered June 12 on the eastern edge of the University of Akron campus, eagerly took Testa’s phone number and promised to call. Eight days later, Testa hadn’t heard a word.
So, Testa says, on Monday, he called the four numbers he had collected on our trip, plus one of the many numbers I passed along from readers who said they wanted to hook up. As of Wednesday morning, he hadn’t gotten a single return call.
Testa says that for now, he has rehired a homeless guy who worked for him until alcohol problems started to affect his reliability. The man claims he now has things under control. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, a person who has taken advantage of the Haven of Rest — an organization I cited as a much better bet for your charity dollars — wholeheartedly agrees with me.
“People who donate [to panhandlers] are contributing to the problem rather than the solution,” says Janice Johnson. “I’m a client at Haven of Rest, just for meals. ... I’m treated wonderfully.
“Yes, it is structured. Yes, you [have to] go to chapel before dinner. But it is a place where people receive food, clothing if they need it, assistance getting a job ...
“This is the kind of thing people should be giving to and those in need should be seeking out. If they truly want to move their lives along, this should be a place they go — not at the bottom of the exit ramp.”
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.