I lost my job, my wife, my car, and I’m now homeless. I’m trying to stay sober. I’m hoping generous San Diegans will pass a few bucks my way to help me out until I can get back on my feet.
None of that is true. But my sign said so, as I stood on a freeway off-ramp and begged for money. I’m blessed with a loving wife and two boys. I own my own business and have lived in the same zip code my entire life. The only thing on my sign that was true was the “Bless You” part, as I silently offered those that gave me money gratitude, though their contributions and kindness were misguided.
In the late 1980s, a photo ran in USA Today showing a transient at a freeway off-ramp in Tucson, Arizona, holding a sign that read “Will work for food.” Within a few years, the freeway-off-ramp sign-holding phenomenon had become part of the American landscape.
For years, on the way to my office, I’ve exited the same Highway 78 off-ramp, Jefferson Street in Oceanside. Almost daily, while I waited for the light to change, I noticed scruffy, sunburned, tattered-clothed, dazed, and confused-looking men (and sometimes women) standing at the end of the off-ramp, holding signs that asked for help. One or two motorists might roll down a window and hand the person money. That intersection cycles every two to three minutes, which means a captive audience of backed-up vehicles about 20 times an hour. If a panhandler is given two bucks per cycle, they might earn $60 an hour — tax free.
“You’d be surprised how much money these guys make,” said the California Highway Patrol’s Jim Bettencourt, spokesperson for the Oceanside office. The highway patrol has jurisdiction over freeway off-ramps, and it’s a violation of California Vehicle Code 22520.5(a) to solicit or sell anywhere on a freeway or within 500 feet of an on- or off-ramp.
“Sometimes [the homeless guys] have a sad story, and other times they are just average citizens,” said Bettencourt. Officers will try to get a panhandler to do a “verbal move,” meaning that they will attempt to get them to leave without a confrontation. They’re usually successful. If an officer returns in an hour and finds the same person there, then that person will be cited.
Recently, I’ve noticed the same group of three guys and one woman at my exit, although each appears on a different day. Was this a well-organized group, rotating systematically to off-ramps within a few miles? Possibly.
I followed one of the guys as he left my off-ramp, to see where he ended up. I thought he probably was living in the eucalyptus-lined hills behind Plaza Camino Real shopping center.
Wrong! I followed him to a Walmart parking lot, where he joined up with other similar-looking men, and got inside an old RV.
Mary Robinson from the Brother Benno Foundation in Oceanside says that whatever money freeway panhandlers make, “it’s not enough to truly help them. It will only be used for alcohol or drugs.”
Brother Benno is one of many agencies that support the homeless with hot meals (they feed up to 150 per day), clothing, job training, shelter, and legal and medical services. Interfaith Ministries, Community Resource Center, Alpha Project, Father Joe’s, and Casa de Amparo are just a few of the great organizations in San Diego County that help the homeless.
Of the chronic street person — 30 percent of the estimated 8000 homeless in the county — Robinson says, “The longer one stays on the streets, the harder it will be to get them to accept services and get out of the pit. They have a lot of fear.”
Before I went “undercover,” I was warned by police, mental-health professionals, and those working with the homeless that most panhandlers would have substance-abuse or mental-health issues. They would be territorial if I were to stand at “their” off-ramp. No matter what their story was, I was instructed to never believe it.
But off-ramp panhandlers aren’t dumb. They know enough to stand at one of two kinds of places: those near where people go to make money (workplaces); or those near where they go to spend money (shopping centers.) The homeless are also smart enough to calculate commute times. They know that one can only panhandle from a left-hand corner, where they can more easily reach the driver’s window.
Stories from the street:
5:30 p.m., southbound I–5 at La Costa Avenue off-ramp, Leucadia: Shawn M’s sign declared to motorists that he had two flat tires. Standing with his six-month-old Shih Tzu–Maltese named Boo, he said he wasn’t homeless, but lived in Oceanside. He worked in the scrap-metal and recycling business. He claimed his car was across the freeway at the Park N Ride lot.
I offered Shawn my portable air pump to inflate his tires. “They won’t hold air,” he said. “I’m just trying to get a few hundred dollars together to take it to the tire shop.”
Shawn said it was his first day panhandling. (Other people had previously told me of the “two flat tires” guy being around on other days.) He excitedly told me he’d raised $45 in less than an hour.
I checked the Park N Ride lot. Of the 65 cars parked there, none had flat tires.
5:00 p.m., eastbound Highway 78 at El Camino Real off-ramp, Carlsbad: Joe from Chicago didn’t appear to be your average freeway panhandler. He was young, 31, and spoke coherently. He said he’d moved to California in 2010 for a great job. He bought a brand-new Jeep and then was laid off from three companies; he’d worked with loan modifiers and bill collectors, and two of them had been raided by the FBI. His last job ended in May.
Joe claimed he lived in his Jeep; he hadn’t made a payment in a year. “If they [the finance company] knew where it was, it would be towed away.” He had his work clothes stored at a friend’s house in Poway. But with little gas money, if he does land a job interview, he can’t always get there to change his clothes.
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