by Liz Seymour
It’s a familiar feeling to anyone who has spent any time driving around Greensboro lately. The light up ahead is turning yellow just as you notice the man standing up ahead with a cardboard sign. Whatever else you might have been thinking about is suddenly superseded by one urgent silent thought: Oh please don’t let the light turn red until I’ve gotten through the intersection.
Someone holding a sign on a corner — “flying a sign” in the language of the streets — poses little or no physical threat to anyone sitting behind the wheel of a car, even when the car is stopped at a red light. That doesn’t really matter, though, if you’re the one in the car. Psychic discomfort can feel as powerful as physical discomfort. Our minds start going down familiar rabbit holes: If I look at him will he think that means I’m going to give him money? Should I give him money? What does it say about me if I just ignore him? But what if it’s all a scam? If I give him money and he spends it on drugs and alcohol have I just made things worse?
Whether it’s actually true or not, the widespread perception is that panhandling has become more prevalent — or “worse” depending on who you’re talking to — in Greensboro. Mayor Nancy Vaughan hears the stories about panhandlers who come up to cars and yell if someone won’t give them money, of people who no longer feel safe shopping at certain places, who call the city to find out if there is something that can be done.
“It really seems as though over the last couple of months panhandling has become very aggressive,” says Vaughan. “Some of it may be an enforcement issue but even if someone is picked up by the police the same person may be back in the same spot a few days later.”
They shouldn’t be — the current ordinance specifies that police can confiscate a panhandler’s license and that it’s then up to the panhandler to prove that the license was taken without cause. At a recent discussion at the Interactive Resource Center, people — many of them experienced panhandlers — expressed the same frustration with aggressive behavior.
“It’s a couple of bad apples,” says one man, “and now we’re all being seen the same way.”
There’s a kind of tradecraft to panhandling and those who do it regularly look down on those who do a sloppy job. “Panhandlers have a warped sense of pride,” says Susan — not her real name — who until recently occupied a regular spot in northwest Greensboro. “We feel as though we can’t get a job,.We can’t hide our shame from ourselves but we can hide it from others. At the end of the day we feel as though we’ve earned it. We’re out there in the heat, the cold, the rain. Even though we’re asking for help we don’t feel as though we haven’t worked for it.”
There’s no doubt that not everyone flying a sign is homeless and hungry, though even those who have homes are often so far under the poverty line that they panhandle to make ends meet. Most people flying a sign bring in only $50 or $60 for an eight-hour day, about the equivalent of a minimum wage job — if they could find a job in a county where the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the state. The urban legend is that panhandlers live large on the money they make from strangers. At this, Susan shakes her head.
“They’re living in a motel, in a tent, staying from friend to friend to friend and it’s wearing thin,” she says, “living in vehicles and praying they don’t get pulled because they don’t have insurance.”
Greensboro’s panhandling ordinance, unanimously passed by city council in 2012, spell out where, when and how a person can ask for money. Panhandlers must get a license from the city (the licenses are free) and in order to qualify for one, a person must not have been convicted of a violent crime in the last five years. Panhandlers can’t ask for money after dark, in school zones during pick-up or drop-off times, within 100 feet of a bank or ATM machine, outside a movie theater or any other place where people are standing in line, on private property without permission, on an exit ramp, in or near a parking deck or on a bus. They can’t stand on medians or in the street, can’t block someone’s path, follow someone down the street or even approach within three feet unless invited to. They can’t yell, curse, be drunk or generally behave in a way that a reasonable person would find threatening. And everything on their sign must be true.
The last might be the most difficult one for a panhandler to obey. The sequence of events that leads someone to panhandling is much too complex to fit on a cardboard sign. For Susan flying a sign became a matter of life and death. Years of childhood abuse had led to an adulthood filled with bad relationships and self-punishing behavior. She was with an abusive man who was pressuring her to join him in shoplifting and who beat her if she didn’t bring in enough money to help pay for the motel room they shared.
“It got to the point where if I wanted to eat or have someplace to stay I had to put my pride aside,” she says. “Without sign flying I might not have made it. The truth is, he might have killed me.”
Susan found a spot on Battleground Avenue, near a shopping center. “I cried that whole first day. It’s very degrading to have to be the person asking for help all the time. People recognized me from places I had worked, from church, from the downtown area. People got to know me, but that’s not the me I wanted them to know.”
Then, unexpectedly, something happened. Out there on the roadside asking for spare change Susan herself began to change. “It sounds funny, but it became a freeing experience. People would just be flying by, flying by, flying by and I’d be thinking about my situation, making it from day to day, singing songs in my head. I learned to forgive. I learned to forgive the people who had abused me in the past, people who were abusing me now, the people driving by saying nasty things, myself. It really made my spiritual walk better. I started praying for everybody who drove by. God moves through people. Nobody’s done. I’d stand there saying a prayer for everyone who went by. I’d think: I don’t know what’s going on in their lives but I know that no matter what, everyone’s going through something and I hope it gets better for them”.
Begging and almsgiving have a place in every religion. Buddhists call giving dana, one of the paths to enlightenment; the Jewish scholar Maimonides listed eight levels of giving, the highest being to provide someone with the means of self-sufficiency; Christians recognize the importance of “love offerings”; Muslims honor giving as one of the Five Pillars of Wisdom; and for Hindus giving is one way of satisfying karmic debts. But that doesn’t make it any easier to be on either side of the streetcorner transaction.
“Ashamed, disheartened and scared,” says Dan of his first day out flying a sign. “Really, I’m still ashamed.”
The side of the sign Dan holds up early in the morning says “For Hire” — and sometimes people will stop and give him a day’s work. If nothing comes of that by early afternoon he’ll flip the sign over to the side that says “Homeless and Hungry.”
I first got to know Dan years ago when I was a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, a group that serves a free meal each week. At that time Dan had dark hair down to his shoulders, but when I caught up with him again after I had become the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, a day center for people who are homeless, Dan’s head was shaved completely bald. He explained to me that he had been growing his hair until it was long enough to donate to Locks of Love, which he had just done.
“You definitely get in touch with your humanity while you’re standing there,” he says. “You see where people’s heart is and you see where your own heart is. It has made me very humble. Standing there I’ve become more in touch with my weaknesses.”
When he’s not staying in a motel Dan has a small camp set up on the eastern edge of downtown. A couple of times a week he goes to the grocery store to buy two 2.5-gallon jugs of water to fill the solar-heated camping shower he has rigged up next to his tent. Every few months he uses some of his panhandling money to wash his sleeping bag at a Laundromat and twice a year or so treats his tent with mildew retardant. With the $30 from a recent half-day of flying a sign he spent $28 on a 31-day bus pass and spent the other $2 on a cup of coffee and something for breakfast. Legal issues, debt and severe depression following the breakup of his marriage and his estrangement from his children have kept him homeless for more than a decade. “When I lost my wife and children I gave up wanting what other people have,” he says. “I stopped wanting to live like other people do.”
Although people on the streets express fears that panhandling could be outlawed altogether in Greensboro, it’s unlikely that will happen. Two years ago when the city passed its current ordinances the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter raising questions about the ordinance’s constitutionality. An outright ban would certainly draw the ACLU’s attention.
“The Supreme Court has already weighed in on panhandling and has said that it’s a protected right,” says Sarah Preston, Policy Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “We feel that Greensboro’s current ordinances are restrictive and should not be tightened.”
Greensboro is by no means the only city wrestling with the issue of panhandling and other activities that bring homelessness into the public eye. Last August Raleigh got some unwelcome national attention when the police threatened members of several church groups with arrest if they didn’t stop serving free meals in downtown Raleigh’s Moore Square Park; after a public outcry the city is now upfitting an old warehouse adjacent to Moore Square Park as a place to serve meals. Around the same time the Columbia, SC City Council unanimously voted in a plan to clear the city’s central business district of homeless people by transporting them by van to a shelter outside the city center. Even the city’s police chief balked at that.
“Homelessness is not a crime,” interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago told the State newspaper. “We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”
Greensboro has never considered the heavy-handed measures taken in Raleigh and Columbia, but city staff members have been asked to look at ways to make the current ordinance more stringent, the mayor says. Any changes, Vaughan is quick to say, must come in the context of a larger effort to address poverty and homelessness.
“Our goal is not to make panhandling a criminal offense,” she says. “We need to look at the root causes of panhandling. As a city we should not see panhandling as a solution — we can’t just cut people off without offering something else.”
People on the streets agree.
“I would much rather be self-sufficient but at the moment I’m dependent on the kindness of other people,” says Dan. “It shouldn’t be against the law to be poor and needy and have to beg. I wish I could say to people, ‘I am human just like you. I am not an alcoholic, I am not a drug addict. I am homeless but I still have the same needs as you.’”
Those needs can be surprisingly ordinary. After Susan found the strength to finally leave the man who was abusing her, she moved into a shelter where she made friends with other women in her situation. She flew a sign to get the money to buy them Christmas presents. Dan, like many men his age, is watching his weight. “I go to all the places that serve free food,” he says, “but a lot things at meals I have to pass on — I try to be careful about salt and I try to skip starchy foods. Sometimes I fly a sign just so I can buy my own food.”
Homelessness as we know it is a modern invention that began as a full-blown movement in the 1970s, with a perfect storm of the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness, drastic cuts in funding for affordable housing and the end of the Vietnam War. Forty years later we still haven’t recovered. A bad situation was made worse in the last decade with a national recession coupled with the local loss of manufacturing jobs. The annual point-in-time count, a 24-hour snapshot of homelessness in Guilford County conducted in January, identified 897 people living in the county without homes. While the overall number went down some since the 2013 count there was a troubling increase in the number of homeless veterans and of people made homeless by domestic violence.
Greensboro has a lot of services for people who are homeless but the services don’t work for everyone all the time. Night shelters have time limits (and limitations: there are more than twice as many homeless people in Guilford County as there are shelter beds) and certain legal issues may keep people out of the shelters entirely. Free meals are available but getting to them can involve some traveling and, as Dan has found, the meals do not always meet everyone’s dietary needs. In a world where things cost money people need money to get by.
People flying signs become roadside sociologists. “Pretty much you can tell who is going to give and who is not,” Susan says. “If someone is fumbling too long they’re looking for make-up or their phone or their sunglasses. People in beat-up cars are more likely to give than people in nice cars — the ones driving those BMWs and Jags are in hock up to their eyeballs. The people in the old cars they’ll let you know, ‘Man, I’ve been out there, it gets better.’ That encouraging word means a lot. And there are people who stop and want to talk, they want to know, and they have a right to know because it’s their money that’s supporting me. Even just smiling and waving makes a difference, it makes a big difference. When people show that they are actually concerned about you it puts something in the back of your head that you’re worth something. At the end of the day it’s just people helping people.”
Dan agrees. “Sometimes people roll down their window and say they don’t have any money to give me but they wish me well. That’s valuable to my heart and my soul.”
Panhandlers also experience aggressive behavior. Once a man wadded a dollar bill into a tight ball and threw it hard at Susan; someone once gave her two pennies and laughed. People regularly yell things as they drive by.
“I’ve been attacked by people who looked like they were going to give me money and then reached out of the car window and grabbed my shirt,” says Dan, who has been flying a sign around Greensboro for three years. “I’ve had people try to rob me, yell vulgar things.”
Susan has heard plenty of rude comments too. She learned to shrug it off. “I would just think: You know what buddy, you can’t put me down more than I’ve already done to myself.”
She’s not down anymore. Susan has left her spot for good — her application for disability support has finally gone through and she received her first check last month. After a visit to family in the Midwest she’s coming back to Greensboro to look for an apartment. Dan is still out there with no prospects for more than casual temporary work. But something has changed in him too.
“My experiences aren’t lessons that were taught to me,” he says. “They are lessons that were learned. I can tell you that lessons that have to be learned come a whole lot harder than the lessons we are taught.”
There was a time when Dan was the one in the car driving by ignoring the people by the side of the road with the cardboard signs. “Honestly I never gave them a thought. I regret that now.”