Last summer, before his senior year at George Fox University, economics student David Spears II trekked out to the exit ramp near his home in Oregon City, Ore., to learn how much panhandlers earn.
In his book "Exit Ramp: A Short Case Study of the Profitability of Panhandling," the 31-year-old Iraq War veteran documents a two-week period spent as an undercover panhandler. With a clipboard attached to the back of his cardboard sign, he gathered info about the cash and the people who gave it to him.
"From an economist's view, there is a lot of incentive to panhandle," Spears said.
Over the course of his study, he earned an average hourly rate of $11.08, more than his last job working mall security. With taxes, a person would have to earn about $13 an hour to get the same pay rate, he said. On his best day, he made $24.63 per hour — nearly three times Oregon's minimum wage — and on his worst day, which was also his first day, he collected $5.13 per hour. Lunchtime proved to be the most profitable, when he would consistently earn above minimum wage.
Besides money, he got more than $80 in gifts — sports drinks, gift cards, cigarettes, beer, bottled water, beef jerky, homeless care packages — as well as some sage advice and even a job offer. Vets and Veterans Affairs caseworkers offered him rides to the local office.
"I was really surprised by the vibrant generosity people showed me," Spears said of those who showed earnest concern and stopped to offer advice. He's skeptical, though, of those who just handed, or threw, him a few bucks. "How do we know this generosity is actually effective?"
Dropping some change into the hands of someone looking for a lift may treat the symptoms, but it doesn't cure the cause of their poverty. There's no relationship and no real truth to the exchange. He acknowledges there are other issues at play that bring a person to ask for money on the corner.
"You have no way of knowing what happens to your money next," Spears said. "You have to look at why they're out there in the first place."
An individual could theoretically pull themselves out of poverty if they worked full-time panhandling at an $11.08 hourly wage, he said, but would that actually work? Could they get a home and a taxpaying job? As Spears continues his studies, he looks to analyze the Portland metro area as a panhandling market and figure out how much money and goods are exchanged.
He said his book will be released Thursday on Amazon.
To give or not to give?
Andy Silver, executive director of Clark County's Council for the Homeless, said that giving to a panhandler is a personal choice. Often, people who roll down their window to give are trying to alleviate the immediate effects of homelessness: pain, hunger and being out in the elements.
"It's not ending anything. It's not providing them with stability," said Katherine Garrett, Share's outreach director.
We, as Americans, have so much and feel bad for those who look hungry, dirty and down on their luck, she said. The nonprofit serving the area's hungry and homeless believes the dollars are better spent with an agency that serves those in need.
Share is just one of many charities, churches and businesses that helps out the homeless with meeting basic needs and pulling themselves out of poverty.
"The point of social services is to end homelessness, not maintain it," Garrett said.
Garrett can't say that the panhandling population is growing, but she's sure it's shifting. For years, panhandlers were dominantly middle-aged. During her 12 years as Share's outreach director, she's seen the panhandling population skew both younger and older. Elderly panhandlers are often on Social Security and looking to supplement their income, she said.
While the chronically homeless are still out there, she sees larger numbers of homeless youth and young adults. Some don't know how to get a job and don't want to deal with shelters.
Some of the most popular spots are the Interstate 205 ramps, Highway 99 and Vancouver Plaza Drive near Target, but they also stand in parks and outside businesses, Garrett said. Residents of Rose Village, one of Vancouver's poorest neighborhoods, say places along Fourth Plain are targeted regularly: Burgerville, McDonald's, St. John's IGA, Waterworks Park and Lord's Gym.
Homeless young adults are like the rest of the homeless population, Garrett explains — they're looking to get by.