His sign asked for a place to shower and shave. His last meal, he said, was french-toast sticks at a Carl’s Jr. the previous morning. He also claimed it was his first hour ever panhandling, as he didn’t know what else to do. He had earned $7 so far.
6:00 p.m., exit of Target shopping center, El Camino Real, Encinitas: Corky’s sign read, “Please Help.” He said that he has been homeless for two years and is now sleeping in his car. Today, he made $15 in the past hour. Christmastime last year, he made $118 in 15 minutes.
Corky said he only panhandles to get what he needs for the next few days, and then he leaves. “I don’t want to abuse the situation. This stinks, having to do this, and I’d rather have a full-time job.” He’s smoked all his life and has lung disease but can’t afford to have it treated. He happily told me that his five-year sobriety birthday was October 19.
9:30 a.m., westbound Highway 78 at El Camino Real off-ramp, Oceanside: Jack Raymond Foster (he insisted I use his full name) has been on the streets for 15 years. He didn’t want to talk much about his panhandling. He did want to tell me about his run for the White House, as a write-in candidate.
He writes campaign-statement signs for passing motorists to read. His “Our Party International Independent” has one plank to its platform — legalizing all drugs. “We spend billions a year on illegal drugs. Imagine what it would do to our economy if drugs were legalized and cheaper? People would have much more money to spend on other things.”
I kept asking, in different ways, how much he made in a day. He finally relented with “On a slow day, $400.” I inquired if he had ever asked a social-service agency for help. He got agitated and said he doesn’t want to be part of any of those groups: he doesn’t need them.
Now it was my turn. I planned out a five-day investigation, working two hours per day, at off-ramps in North County. I let a beard grow. I made a cardboard sign.
I put on my oldest jeans and shoes (no socks), a beanie cap, scratched-up sunglasses, and a faded San Diego Padres T-shirt. My kids said I still looked too clean to be a “hobo.”
At 7:30 a.m., I arrived at the busy off-ramp of southbound 805 at Mira Mesa Boulevard. After parking at a nearby office building, I grabbed my backpack stuffed with beach towels (for the all-my-possessions look) and rubbed handfuls of dirt into my jeans.
I assumed the role. I stood with a blank look on my face. I paced up and down the off-ramp. I looked into people’s eyes and also peered off into the distance. I limped. I looked tired. Sometimes, I stared at the sky for no reason. I saw people I recognized — probably parents I’ve seen around my kids’ schools for years. They didn’t recognize me.
Cars would back up almost to the top of the off-ramp, both on a red light and a traffic-clogged green light. I had an audience of 30–40 cars per signal cycle. After 20 minutes of no contributions, I started to believe that maybe the whole basis of my story about all the money collected was crap.
Finally, however, the money started to flow. In less than two hours, I had made $27 — generally more than one dollar at a time. Three people gave me five-dollar bills. I also got two granola bars. (The money I collected was given to Brother Bennos.)
While trying to pass the time, I noted that the more expensive the car, the greater the ability of the driver to completely ignore a person standing outside their window. I also observed a driving tip for the unlucky rat-racers who exit into Sorrento Mesa each day for work: the right lane of the two-lane off-ramp to eastbound Mira Mesa Boulevard empties twice as fast as the left lane.
At the end of my two hours, I had proven, thanks to the kindness of San Diegans, that freeway panhandlers, homeless or not, can make a lot of money — tax free — with the right location and wording on a sign. It’s all about the marketing. However, the negative consequences of my limited experiences were far greater.
I felt exhausted, demeaned, degraded, and nonexistent. I even told one driver, who was sitting at a very long light, “I’m not who you think I am.” I explained what I was really doing, and he negated me with, “Sure, pal, whatever.” Another driver stopped right in front of me in a convertible. “How you doing?” I asked. No response. I asked again. Nothing but a cold, expressionless face. But he wore a really nice suit.
Several times out there, I wanted to yell, “Look at me! I’m a human being!” At the end of the day, I couldn’t wait to get home and take a shower. I was done. I couldn’t do it again. My kids wanted to see me in action, after school. I said absolutely not. I never want to have to feel that way again.
I have been one of those people who won’t let his eyes wander to the strange man out the window. I’ve become angry seeing a driver hand out money, knowing that I, being self-employed, some days don’t even make minimum wage.
I continue to believe that a homeless person can get help if needed, and that giving them money doesn’t help them at all. It’s a chosen — and sometimes lucrative — lifestyle, potentially wasted on those unable or unwilling to seek out that help.
But the homeless do deserve our compassion. After interviewing Joe from Chicago — the guy who said he hadn’t eaten in two days — I went to McDonald’s and bought him some cheeseburgers, fries, and a vanilla shake. After handing the meal to him through my window, the light changed and I drove forward. I looked in my rearview mirror to see him gobbling down a burger. ■
— Ken Harrison