Panhandling: It's complicated

They're not all scammers

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By Tom Holmes

Anthony and Kim panhandle almost every day where the ramps to and from the Eisenhower intersect with Harlem Avenue. If they are lucky, they make enough to pay for a $17/person hotel room, some cheap food and train fare.

Anthony, who is 36 years old, said, "Every time you hold up that cardboard sign with homeless printed on it, it takes a little piece of you away. It's degrading."

Kim added, "I'm embarrassed."

Their story is like the ones we've heard from many homeless people. Anthony was running a media company called Blueline Recording with his mother. She then pulled all her money out of the business, moved to Iowa and left him with all of the debt. He sold his townhouse to keep up with the payments, and then his car broke down. Without his own transportation, he had a hard time looking for a job after he lost the business. He stayed with friends when he couldn't come up with the rent, and when his friends moved out of town, he wound up on the street about a year and a half ago.

Bad luck? Poor judgment? A little naivete? Abandoned by friends and family? According to Anthony, it's a little of all the above.

Kim's story is different — and private. Afflicted with high anxiety, she doesn't talk about how and why she ended up on the street.

Another homeless man named John taught Anthony to panhandle. "The first time I did it," he recalled, "I made $15 real fast and I thought that I might be on to something. I did well at first and that raised my hopes that I'd get off the street quickly. But that changed. We're making a lot less these days, maybe a quarter of what we did when we started. In two hours today, Kim and I together made $13."

He said it's easier surviving during the warm-weather months, because he and Kim can sleep outside if they don't make enough money that day from panhandling, but in the cold months, the only option is trying to sleep sitting up at Rush Oak Park Hospital or do the same while riding the el.

The problem with the el, he said, is that when the train gets to the end of the line, they have to pay another $6 to keep riding. On top of that sometimes other homeless people will steal their possessions if they fall asleep.

"Sometimes," he said, "people will yell, 'Get a job' out of their car window as they drive up the ramp to Harlem, but they don't understand that I don't have a phone to make appointments because it and my ID were stolen, I don't have a car to drive to interviews that are far away, and I don't have a place to shower or change clothes so I look presentable during the interview."

It takes Kim an hour every morning to get up the courage to go back out to the ramp. "People have called me 'scum bag' and a whole lot worse," she said. "What's more, we compete with other homeless people for the most lucrative places."

Kim and Anthony view panhandling very much like their jobs. They speak of their "shifts" and "taking breaks." Anthony said, contrary to how many people think, it's hard work. "I have blisters on blisters," he said, "because I walk so far every day."

Kim talked about the ethics of the business of panhandling. "Some panhandlers walk right up to car windows in an intimidating way," she said, adding, "That's rude. One woman wrote on her cardboard sign that she's pregnant and she's not. I won't do that. When you lie, God is not going to help you."

They acknowledged that many of the panhandlers are scammers. They dress up in army uniforms, for example, or hold up a gas can claiming they need a few bucks for their car. And then people see them out there the next day holding the same gas can. "People stop helping real homeless people like us because of scammers or they hear on the news that a homeless person stabbed someone, and they generalize that all homeless people are like that."

Religion is important to the two who are more friends and survival partners than married. Anthony said that before he began living on the street, he was angry at God for a while because of his father dying so young, which led to his string of bad luck, "but when I became homeless is when I began to hold God a little closer."

Kim said, "I always wear my rosary and make the sign of the cross before I go on the ramp, but I don't do it on the ramp. I actually try to hide because some panhandlers pretend to be religious in order to get more money. I won't do that."

Lynda Schueler, director of Housing Forward, responded with empathy to complaints by Kim and Anthony about the PADS shelters and why some street people do not make use of them.

"Homeless individuals," Schueler said, "have a tough decision between losing hours that may potentially garner cash vs. a warm place to sleep for the night. Due to the emergency shelter being in a different location each night, it does require walking, taking public transportation or catching a ride."

However, many of the shelter sites are concentrated in the Oak Park community, she noted, allowing for easier access between sites, and Housing Forward is in the process of adding on new shelter sites to increase bed availability and reduce turn-aways. Calvary Memorial Church, for example, is a new shelter site on Thursday evenings, offering 20 beds with a family preference.

Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas naturally views the issue of homelessness through the lens of law enforcement. "We truly do not want to make arrests on those who are homeless," he said, "but many ignore warnings, use drugs and discard needles in public areas and put themselves and motorists at risk."

"We have to respond to public complaints," he added. "I know that some feel the police hate them. That is not true. I'm sure some officers may get impatient because previous warnings are repeatedly ignored. If they want help and ask, they will get it. We do not find ways to make it illegal."

Aftanas said the police department does not have a zero tolerance approach to panhandling. He said officers first give verbal warnings that panhandlers are violating local ordinances while giving information on the shelters, and it is only after repeated violations that arrests are made.

"If anyone needs information on PADS," he added, "all they have to do is ask an officer or call the non-emergency number at 708-366-2425. More often than not, if they need a ride to a shelter, we would do that. We also escort them in after hours if need be."

The solution? A website called invisiblePEOPLE contends that ending homelessness in America "requires multifaceted solutions," including building more affordable housing, paying wages that cover the real costs of living, and increasing access to supportive services like affordable health and mental health care services.

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Reader Comments

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Jan Stephens  

Posted: November 6th, 2019 7:24 PM

Art Kazar, why does it matter? No one is providing a windfall to those asking. I'd rather give to someone who doesn't need it than miss helping someone who does. I think folks need to let go of their pride because they must feel they are being fooled. And in answer to the question why did they get on the el when they have no way to get back, obviously they needed to. You get to the place you have to go and THEN you worry about getting back. Same to Pam Fontana, talking about homeless having a change of clothing. Yeah, from a backpack or from wearing it under their other clothes or leaving it in a box in an underpass. If you really need to see how some live, go the well trafficked underpass near downtown Chicago's Metra. It's the one to the north, on Lake Street. Or better yet, volunteer at night to bring food to the inhabitants.

Geoff Binns-Calvey  

Posted: November 2nd, 2019 10:16 PM

Art, you can't. So if you're going home to a decent house with a warm bed and a cupboard full of food, you take a chance. The person asking you for a little something might be lying. Or they might be gut-rumble hungry. Take a chance, and give a little, as you go home to your warm place.

Art Kazar from Forest Park  

Posted: November 2nd, 2019 5:38 PM

I agree that we should show compassion for those in need and steer them to PADS for help, but there are those who come just for money. Saying you need money to take the CTA home begs the question "why did you come here in the first place and with no money to get home"? I was also a commuter on the Green Line for 30 years and used to see the same people already on the EL when I got on downtown going to Forest Park to stand by OSCO/CVS or the EL station begging for money. How do you seperate the truly needy from the scammers?

Jan Stephens  

Posted: October 31st, 2019 8:18 PM

I feel sick to my stomach reading nasty posts about the homeless. Anyone commenting in such a manner must live oh so well that they've never felt the sweaty fear of living on the streets. Bad things happen every day but not everyone has the ability or resources to stop a downward spiral. Be kind, people. It's not that difficult.

Leah Ann Shapiro from Forest Park  

Posted: October 31st, 2019 7:20 PM

Housing Forward/PADS gives homeless visitors a home cooked evening meal, breakfast and a bagged lunch. They also have showers and services at their main site. Finding a place to stay during the day is a challenge. Housing Forward provides many services including transitional housing. Maybe an article can be written on this.

Geoff Binns-Calvey  

Posted: October 31st, 2019 6:51 AM

If it were a simple as "Get cleaned up, find a job, and go live in a nice warm place," I'll bet none of those people would be standing out there. I try not to judge, so I don't get judged, but when a woman in a raggedy coat standing in the cold holds up a sign that says "Hungry", I can't turn my back on that. I don't know how she got there, but I keep Ziploc bags in the car, with water, socks, power bars, etc., and I pass those out the window. You can't fix everybody, but you can give them enough calories to get them through half a day, and some clean dry socks. Compassion feels good. We need more of it.

Pam Fontana  

Posted: October 30th, 2019 3:52 PM

Tired of all the panhandling in Forest Park. It's the same people every day. They always have on different clothes so they have their possessions somewhere. " don't have a phone to make appointments because it and my ID were stolen, I don't have a car to drive to interviews that are far away,".......lots of excuses. Too many excuses. If panhandling is your job, you will continue to be homeless and never get out of the hole you're in. Sorry.

Greg Mitchell  

Posted: October 30th, 2019 3:24 PM

"The solution? A website called invisiblePEOPLE contends that ending homelessness in America "requires multifaceted solutions," including building more affordable housing, paying wages that cover the real costs of living, and increasing access to supportive services like affordable health and mental health care services." Congratulations. You have made news piece, an opinion piece. You don't know that "invisiblepeople.com" is a solution. You hope it is.....Hell, I hope it is. But the way the last paragraph in this article is placed is the lowest form of journalism.

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