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Panhandler for day begs off mooching

Columnist applies for Akron license and hits street in quest for donations. Money isn't easy

By Bob Dyer
Beacon Journal staff writer

Published on Friday, Oct 17, 2008

I'm not certain whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I have discovered that I am a terrible panhandler.

While wearing my official City of Akron Temporary Panhandler Registration badge — Number T-083, for those of you scoring at home — I didn't collect enough money to pay for the gas I burned while driving to three sites.

My dismal showing stands in stark contrast to that of the local pros. Yes, pros. There is so much money to be made that at least one panhandler, a guy who hangs out near the University of Akron, is paid by someone to stand there and collect.

One beggar near the Wallhaven Acme boasted to a donor that he had made $40,000 the previous year.

Yet another, when offered food by a female motorist, replied, ''If I take home anymore [bleeping] food, my wife will kill me.''

Some beggars wear iPods and sip Starbucks. Just how destitute can they be?

Statistics provided by the Akron police show that 21 percent of the people who have registered under the city's 2-year-old panhandling law don't live in the city.

''For many of the people who get these permits, it is a profitable business,'' says Dave Lieberth, Akron's deputy mayor of administration and the driving force behind the legislation.

''Some of these people are taking the bus in every morning from out of town. This is their job!''

Lieberth says the new law has cut down dramatically on complaints about aggressive panhandling. But it clearly has done nothing to reduce the number of people standing around with their hands out.

No wonder. Forty grand, tax-free?

Hmmm. With my stock portfolio reduced to a rotting carcass, I figured this might be worth a shot.

Could it really be that easy? Only one way to find out.

License to beg

Now, the concept of a ''panhandling license'' seems absurd. What self-respecting panhandler would apply for a license?

Incredibly, police say about 99 percent of the people they check have one. So I figured I'd better fall in line.

The first step was a trip to the cop shop, where the permits are issued free of charge.

As Lieberth points out, qualifying is not particularly difficult. ''Apparently you did, so that's a pretty clear test that anybody can get one,'' he said.


Actually, Dave, in an eerie foreshadowing, I initially was rejected.

I showed up at police headquarters in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon and was directed to a third-floor office. When I got there, I was told drug-testing was being conducted in that office and they didn't want to ''compromise'' the area. Try another time, they said.

Three hours later, I returned and was allowed to compromise their area. After coughing up all kinds of personal information, including a Social Security number and date of birth, I smiled for the camera and was given a temporary badge good for 10 days. If I cleared the background check, I could get a ''permanent'' license good for one year.

Panhandlers also are handed a sheet of paper spelling out the rules — a mere 60 lines of type on one side and 59 on the other — ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

The main restrictions: Stay at least 20 feet away from banks, bus stops, ATMs, sidewalk cafes, schools, churches, Canal Park stadium, the Akron Civic Theatre, Lock 3 Park and the Akron Art Museum.

Being a fair-weather panhandler, I waited for a nice day. That morning, I tore apart a cardboard box and, Magic Marker in hand, vowed to adhere to the rule that says you can't lie about how the money will be used.

I settled on ''Please help the Homeless.'' That was legit because I planned to donate whatever I collected to Access Inc., a local shelter for women and children.

Next, I needed a game plan. I would require not only a high-traffic area but also a place where I could stand on the driver's side of the car. That's easy in England; not so easy here.

An ideal location

A colleague suggested a spot where he had seen other panhandlers: Buchholzer Boulevard and Independence Avenue, immediately west of Chapel Hill Mall. A grassy median and a traffic light supply a captive audience with driver's-side access.

When I arrived, another beggar was already there. The nerve!

His sign, sadly, was more compelling: ''Anything will help. Homeless, hungry, need work.''

I also realized I might be a bit overdressed, despite wearing blue jeans, a cheap knit shirt, sunglasses and a ballcap. (Note to self: Next time, go with the tattered T-shirt.)

Plan B was the eastern edge of the University of Akron campus. A one-way access road that parallels state Route 8 offers a driver's-side patch of real estate at Carroll and Goodkirk.

The juices began to flow. My panhandling debut!

Almost immediately, I began to regret it.

A distinct sociological pattern quickly emerged. When motorists first lay eyes on you, their faces communicate one of two emotions:

• Pity.

• Contempt.

Being on the receiving end of either one isn't much fun.

After the initial eye contact, a third reaction usually kicks in: avoidance. It is amazing how creative people can be when they want to dodge eye-contact. Suddenly, all sorts of things need to be re-arranged on the front seat, in purses or in center consoles.

I stood there for half an hour; it seemed like half a day.

During the entire ordeal, my only donation was a $1 bill, courtesy of a young woman of college age who made the hand-off at about 10 mph.

I attributed my lack of success to my location. College kids are cheap, right?

So it was off to the Wallhaven neighborhood in West Akron, where one lane of eastbound Market Street peels off toward Exchange and Hawkins at a stoplight in front of a muffler shop.

Less than one minute after assuming my position, a middle-age black woman in a rusty car rolled down her window and handed me a crumpled dollar.

Bingo! This must be the spot.

Wrong. Thirty minutes later, my total Wallhaven haul was . . . one dollar.

I did collect some local flavor, though. About midway through, a teenage boy driving in the other direction rolled down his window and screamed, ''Get a [bleepin'] job!''

Truth be told, that was a welcome respite from the alternating looks of pity and disdain.

The bottom line

I returned to the office bemoaning the fact that this idea looked a whole lot better on paper.

''Well,'' offered colleague David Giffels, ''if there's an upside, you're just not pathetic enough.''

Maybe I should have listened to Managing Editor Doug Oplinger, who suggested I could gain a vast amount of sympathy by wearing a shirt with a Merrill Lynch logo.

In any event, I have passed along my hard-earned $2, plus $23 more, to Access Inc., which for 24 years has aided local homeless women and children.

If you really want to help the homeless, that makes a lot more sense than trying to guess whether someone is truly destitute. Just write a check to Access, the Haven of Rest, the Interfaith Hospitality Network or a similar group.

The city recently created another alternative. Two old parking meters have been painted and turned into donation receptacles. Coins deposited in a special green meter inside of Lock 3 Park go to the Haven of Rest ($100 so far after only a couple of months), and donations dropped into a red meter newly placed at Cascade Plaza will be forwarded to the Salvation Army.

Granted, none of this addresses the problem of homeless people who want to be homeless because they're mentally ill. But that's a tougher topic for another day.

One thing is certain: Throwing bills at people who might or might not desperately need them isn't the best strategy.

Those folks will always be out there, because the courts have consistently ruled that begging is protected by freedom of speech. Akron's law is about as restrictive as possible.

Meanwhile, I've come to the conclusion that panhandling is an overrated profession. Sure, it might sound great when your school guidance counselor recommends it, but you'd better do some job-shadowing before you commit.

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