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Panhandlers overwhelmingly homeless. Duh?

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2010-02-17 -

It's been several months since Salt Lake City unveiled, then quickly backed-away from an anti-panhandling ordinance. It's not dead yet, but hasn't been voted on by the City Council either. Homeless advocates say the city has started a crackdown on panhandling anyway. At least some of the acrimony results from the city and the Downtown Alliance making or repeating claims that many panhandlers aren't genuinely homeless.

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That claim is a part of their pitch to residents and visitors to end panhandling by boycotting the beggars. Don't give change to the downtrodden guy on the street, the pitch goes, instead give it to a homeless service agency or shelter. Telling folks that panhandlers may be faking or exaggerating their destitution in order to get change, however, deserves careful study.

An informal study by local homeless advocates finds that claim is simply wrong.

I'm blogging here to tell/remind you that City Weekly's own investigation of that claim months ago came to the same conclusion, that panhandlers in Salt Lake City are overwhelmingly homeless. You're shocked, I'm sure. Some of you maybe are shocked, though, since when I tell this story I undoubtedly get somebody telling me about some hidden-camera crap they saw on Dateline, or some other hidden-camera obsessed TV news magazine, in which a panhandler drives away in a Bentley.

I don't doubt there are those strange cases, OK? There is literally always an outlier if only you widen the scope of your study far enough. However, talked to individuals who were either homeless, panhandlers, both, or a mayor, and feel reasonably assured that any panhandlers driving Bentleys are just that: an outlier.

I surveyed 13 people--one of them was Mayor Ralph Becker, who happened to be eating lunch in Pioneer Park. Here were the results:

  • nine of 13 were homeless.
  • Of those nine homeless individuals, four said they panhandle regularly, two said they panhandle occasionally, and one guy said he tried panhandling long ago but no one gave him money, so he stopped.
  • Three non-homeless people panhandled (although two of them were gutter-punk types who have no home, but nevertheless reject the label "homeless." To my mind, that makes them homeless, but whatev)
  • Seven had either mental or physical disabilities.
  • Four of the non-disabled individuals only recently became homeless as a result of loosing their jobs (they now solicit work over on 400 South near Interstate 15 with other day laborers), but all the rest had been homeless prior to the recession of 2008.
  • Only six felt safe and comfortable enough at Utah's homeless shelters to actually stay there. The most common complaint was the prevalence of drug users at the shelters, if not drug use itself.
  • Of the six who do access the homeless shelters, two said they panhandle only occasionally; none were regular panhandlers.
  • Six individuals had jobs, three were actively trying to find jobs, and four--all of which had physical disabilities--had given up on job hunting.
  • Except for the gutter-punk kids, only one individual who panhandled said she had a home, but she'd only had that home two months and was still economically unstable
  • Mayor Becker was the only person who has a job and a home, does not panhandle, and has no known physical and mental disabilities.

Caveat: this was a self-report survey, meaning I took the respondents at their word. If they said they had a mental health issue, I believed them. Are these people lying to me then driving off in their Bentley's? Perhaps. But I also have homeless friends (don't you?) who helped guide the study and have every interest in revealing fakers. Truly homeless people would love to "out" the homeless guy in a Bentley--many would be even angrier at him than you or I--he just doesn't seem to exist.

Also note that some of these people's living situations have changed since October. Lorraine Levi and Siupelimani "Tiny" Muti, for examples, have found subsidized housing.

Here is the Crossroads Urban Center study,Criminalizationor job creation(pdf).

My basic data, collected in October 2009:

Homeless Catalog












Name Homeless? Shelter? Panhandle? Employed? Mental disability? Physical disability?
Lorraine Levi yes yes no trying no yes
Shawna Govero

yes

no no trying no yes
Siupelimani "Tiny" Muti yes yes rarely trying yes yes
Christopher Boyce "no"/yes no yes yes no no
Moon "Frodo" "no"/yes no yes yes no no
Peter Uckerman yes yes rarely no yes yes
Garry McDonald yes no tried it no ? yes
Kerry Thorstead yes no yes no yes yes
Vanessa Cowan as of June, no no yes no yes yes
Rafeal Cardenas-Hernandez yes yes no yes no no
Carlos Fernandez yes yes no yes no no
Pierrot de Souza yes yes no yes no no
Ralph Becker no no no yes no no

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