Economy

The Real Controversy Behind This Sign, Car Dealership, And Homeless Man

June 15th 2017

By:
Mike Rothschild

An incident between a homeless man and a car dealership perfectly calls into question a persistent urban myth — that panhandling is a far more lucrative profession than paid work.

The story starts at a Honda dealership in Brighton, Michigan, where according to local news, two panhandlers had spent the past year-and-a-half standing on the road leading to the dealership. And it ended with the same dealership putting up a sign.

man-holding-dollar-bill

The sign read: "Please do not give anything to this panhandler. We offered him a full-time job at $10 per hour. He said, 'I make more than any of you,' and he did not want the job. Please donate to a more worthy cause."

Little of the story could be confirmed, as dealership employees wouldn't comment on camera to local news, and the man's identity wasn't known so there's no way to confirm what he actually makes as a panhandler.

But the idea of homeless people raking in the big bucks via panhandling is a persistent urban myth, often angering "regular folks" who work for a living.

Brighton Honda Photo

Local news stories about homeless people "exposed" for their "wealth" are a common trope on Facebook and local news.

Some of the most well known are the recent viral story about a "fake homeless" Virginia woman who was arrested at a McDonalds drive-thru after being followed to her car. There's also the panhandler in Oklahoma who claimed to be making $60,000. Lastly, there's the man in England who was said to have earned the equivalent of over $600 per day from panhandling, and even owned a home.

Pictures of the Brighton sign set off a host of social media and news comments. A Reddit thread featuring the picture went viral, full of anecdotes about New York City "squeegee guys" making $30 an hour and driving fancy cars, or a homeless man begging for money from old ladies, only to spend it on alcohol and junk food.

Likewise, one local resident in Brighton declared to a local news station that the man outside the dealership was scamming, adding, "people like me, people like you, we're working trying to provide for our families, and they're just standing there." Another lauded the dealership for "putting some effort into getting rid of them."

YouTube is full of videos delightedly "exposing" "fake homeless people":

But whether or not any of these stories are true is up for debate. Inspired by a Dallas Morning News article claiming some area homeless people make as much as $50 per hour panhandling, Snopes dug into evidence that proves or debunks the "assertion that panhandlers make large sums of money."

What they found was that it's essentially impossible to figure out how much panhandlers make on average. "Location, season, visibility, personality, appearance, the economy, and a giver or mark’s own views of the activity are among the variables that affect how lucrative it can be," the rumor-busting site reported.

Much of the corroboration they found wasn't from properly-performed research, but stories from panhandlers themselves. One described making around $15 per hour on his blog, while another told a news outlet in Oregon that he made between $5 and $24 per hour, and a man told the San Francisco Gate in 2013 that he netted "about $50" a day from begging.

The small amount of research done on "actual" homeless money-making corroborates these lesser amounts. Snopes found a 2001 study that revealed that "panhandlers in Toronto reported a median monthly income of $300 from panhandling and $638 from all sources," while a 2013 study in San Francisco "surveyed 146 panhandlers and found that most make less than $25 per day."

Snopes concluded that despite the difficulty of running down exact numbers, "no credible source suggests that panhandlers are regularly earning $50 an hour under any conditions."

In Brighton, the men actually returned to the dealership, despite the sign warning people not to give to them. They were soon arrested for vagrancy, and the sign was taken down.