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Special report on panhandling in West Michigan

6:23 AM, Jul 16, 2013   |    comments
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GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- You see them everywhere; people begging for money with signs reading 'Homeless,' 'Out of work vet,' or 'Will work for food.' But what are the stories behind the cardboard signs?

The explosion in numbers is the result of a federal court ruling last summer declaring panhandling to be a Constitutional right. This is no longer an issue in Grand Rapids alone, but in the suburbs like Cascade, Walker, and Cutlerville.

There are no prerequisites for this job; all you need is a marker, some cardboard, and an idea for a slogan to really sell your story.

"You make your best money in the rain," explained Janelle. She panhandles on Leonard Street with a sign that says, 'need help with prescription medication, thank you!' "People see you standing in the rain, and they figure you really need it bad if you're standing in the rain."

Panhandlers we surveyed make an average of $20 an hour and like Janelle, many of them are not homeless. "I wish they knew I have to have surgery and I can't get a job right now. Then I can get a job and go to work, but they don't know that so I ignore their comments," said Janelle.

Another panhandler on Wealthy St. tells us he needs more money to take care of his friend. "He don't get social security yet." Another sign nearby asks for money for food.

But really, how truthful are the signs?

We watched a man in Kentwood make dollar after dollar standing outside the Woodland Mall with a sign that said 'Please help, homeless, two kids.' Then, he tossed his sign in the back of his van. We tracked him to a nearby house, but when we knocked on the door, his mom answered.

"He uses my van, but he doesn't live here," she said. When we asked if he is homeless, she said she didn't know.

Then, there's Rudy. He works a high-traffic downtown corner on Pearl Street off U.S. 131. His sign says, 'Homeless vet.' Maybe he's saluted you on your way to work, maybe you've thanked him for his service.

Rudy is not telling you the truth. He admits he is not a vet. When WZZM 13's Hannah Saunders asked if he feels bad about pretending to be one, he said, "No. Uh, yeah, in a way... you got to make money somehow; it's better than robbing people and doing drugs as far as I'm concerned."

Rudy does use some of his money on food, but he says he drinks most of it away; an alcoholic since the age of 13.
The veteran shtick earns Rudy a bonus on holidays like July 4, when typical gifts of a few singles turn to tens and twenties.

"One lady gave me $20, and said I'm so proud of you." Saunders asked if that made him feel bad, "Nah, I'm just happy I got some drinking money," Rudy said.

Rudy is telling the truth about being homeless. He meets his fellow homeless panhandlers under a freeway after their 2-3 hour shifts.

"We live up here, we have a good time, we get drunk every day, make our money," said Rudy's fellow panhandler 'The Fly.'
The routine goes: Panhandle, pool the cash, then it's off to the liquor store.

Rudy and his two buddies showed WZZM all their tricks and techniques. "You got to look them in the eye, you got to get this big, dumb grin on you," plus, some street talk. 'Road dogs' are panhandlers you work the corners with. Each cash gift is called a 'lick,' and 'flying a sign' is panhandling.

We don't want you to think that all of these people are lying to you; some really are in desperate situation and honestly need help.

"I live in the woods." Kurt is a regular on Division Ave. and 44th St. His sign says 'Homeless and hungry.'

"I am hurting. You can see the tears in my eyes right now. I don't know where to go." Kurt says he's depressed and has no hopes, goals, or dreams. He will live this life until the day he dies.

"I want to die soon... why would I want to do this forever?" Similar to the other panhandlers we met, Kurt does not want help from a shelter. Even if panhandling becomes illegal, he would rather starve than go.

Rudy and his road dogs are the opposite. If they can't panhandle, they can't drink. Only then would they consider going to shelters for help. Until then, you can find them hanging in Ah-Nab-Awen Park every afternoon drinking until they pass out, then waking up and doing it all over again.

Our goal with this story isn't to tell you to give, or not give to panhandlers; that's your own decision. But you should ask yourself is this the most productive way to give? We talked with the homeless shelters, and they all suggest you do not give them money, instead, buy them a meal.

Do you have pictures of panhandlers you want to share? Upload them to our photo gallery.

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