Also published on The Huffington Post
The myth that homeless people make millions or thousands of dollars is a myth of gigantic proportions. This myth incorporates the mistaken belief that homeless people make big money by trading on their homelessness, which is simply not true.
Panhandling is one of the primary ways a homeless person can raise funds. In today’s parlance “begging” is called “panhandling.”
I learned a great deal about the nature and necessity of panhandling from a young homeless woman I met outside a theater in Los Angeles. It was 9:30 p.m. on a cool winter’s night when I walked by her as she stood by a shopping cart that held her young child and her infant.
“Can you spare some change?” she asked.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out two $1 bills. As I handed these singles to the young mother, she pulled out a wad of bills from her pocket. She proceeded to place my bills on top of the high stack that she already had.
I began to walk away when I thought I would talk to the young mother.
“May I ask you a question?”
“I’m wondering about something. It’s late at night, you have two young children and you have a lot of money. Why are you and your children outside in the cold?”
“Well, you don’t understand.”
She pulled out all of her money from her pocket. For the first time I noticed that the high stack of bills was actually a bunch of crinkled one dollar bills stacked one on top of another.
“Before you came along, I had $26 here. Now, with your two dollars, I have $28. I’ll be out here until I get $36 for a motel room for me and my babies.”
I was silent. I had no more cash to give her. So, I wished the young mother well and left with a heavy heart.
Obviously, panhandling is not as lucrative as some of us think. This young mother taught me that appearances can be deceiving.
Recycling is another way a homeless person can make money. We’ve all seen a homeless person pushing a cart filled to overflowing with cans and bottles. Sometimes there are even plastic bags bulging with recyclables tied to the sides of the cart.
Can a homeless person “get rich quick” by recycling? Not really. Working from dawn to dust, a homeless person may gather as much as $40 in recyclables. Just enough for a motel room and perhaps one meal.
Also, recycling is not easy work. It requires some mental ability and more than a little physical strength. Certainly, this method of pursuing an income is not available to the elderly or infirm.
My homeless friend Danny recycled cans and bottles every day for years. Each morning Danny would follow the same route, visiting the same locations searching for discarded recyclables. He considered recycling his job and he was devoted to his work.
A lovely, responsible person, Danny was hired not long ago by the City to do part time maintenance work. Although he enjoys his new job, Danny says that he misses his old job of recycling and the places he would visit every day.
Government benefits are another way that a homeless person can acquire funds to live. In California general relief (GR), also known as “welfare,” is a program funded by the county. Although each of the 58 California counties sets its own amount of benefits, San Diego County provides $234 as a loan to a single qualifying adult.
A $234 loan per month is a far cry from riches. Often a homeless person will use some of his or her GR to rent a motel room for several nights and to pay for food during this same period of time. His or her goal is to clean up, rest, and possibly remember what it is like to be housed once again. This brief respite gives the homeless person an opportunity to leave the harsh conditions living on the streets.
A homeless person may also qualify for Social Security benefits. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is available to assist the elderly, blind, or disabled person who has low or no income. In the year 2000, SSI’s maximum monthly benefit was $512.
Social Security Disability Insurance is a monthly benefit for disabled people who have worked within 10 years of the disability and paid Social Security taxes. In the year 2000, the average benefit was about $750.
The monthly benefits available to a qualifying adult through SSI or SSDI will not make a homeless person rich. The goal of these programs is to provide a safety net for those who do qualify. These funds may be sufficient for a homeless person to secure housing.
People are homeless for a host of reasons, but they are not pretending to be poor. They do not have the funds for three meals a day and a roof over their heads every night.
No homeless person is getting rich through panhandling, recycling or any government program.