Differing views on an increasingly obvious problem across the streets of pandemic-hit America
COTTONWOOD, Ariz.—Catherine Schwab of Michigan sat in a folding chair holding a cardboard sign in the dry heat of the afternoon sun.
“Please Help,” the sign in magic marker said.
Wearing a wide-brim summer hat and shorts, Schwab watched the cars enter and leave the Walmart parking lot in Cottonwood, Arizona, her face without expression.
Every day, it’s the same deal.
The drivers slow down, stare, or give her strange looks and move on.
Many could care less; others might roll down a window to chat with her out of curiosity or compassion.
Sometimes, Schwab will receive money, bottles of water, and food. Mostly, the cars keep going; the drivers never make eye contact.
“This bothers me having to come out here like this,” said Schwab, 56, a lit cigarette between her thumb and forefinger. “I feel like kind of a low-life.”
A series of unexpected events left Schwab stranded in Cottonwood about six months ago. She’s been living with friends and remains stuck in this desert oasis town of nearly 13,000 until she can save enough money to drive back to Michigan and start over.
“Things didn’t work out. I ain’t doing too good,” she said.
Stranded in Arizona
Nearly every day, Schwab panhandles for money in the relentless Arizona sun just beyond the main entrance to the Cottonwood Walmart on a public right of way.
She averages anywhere from a few dollars to around $40 in contributions on a good day but needs $1,500 to return home. Much of the money she receives she spends on food and helping her friends with rent.
Her backstory is sad, to say the least, but it is for each person to decide how much of it is true, says Cottonwood Police Chief Stephen Gesell. He’s had years of experience dealing with the homeless and panhandlers as the former police chief in San Luis Obispo, California.
Panhandling is a problem in Cottonwood, as it is nationwide, and seems to follow a seasonal pattern.
Some local merchants say the situation has gotten worse with a slowing economy. One shop owner said panhandling is an “accelerating” problem, and it’s not good for business.
In the affluent town of Fountain Hills, Arizona, home of “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio, there’s been an “alarming rise” in the number of street homeless and panhandlers.
According to the town’s website, “homelessness is a national issue, affecting every community in America, including the town of Fountain Hills.”
Endhomelessness.org reported that 17 out of every 10,000 people in the United States—567,715 in total—were homeless on a single night in January 2019.
Economy Fuels Panhandling
Like other cities and towns, Fountain Hills experienced a sharp rise in panhandling due to higher eviction rates resulting from lost employment and resources in the COVID-19 pandemic economy.
The community is looking to address both related problems on a regional scale through the Maricopa Association of Governments.
However, Gesell said that a large percentage of panhandlers aren’t necessarily homeless but do it mainly out of personal choice. They don’t want public assistance programs, rules, regulations, or daily structure.
Gesell said many good samaritans feel the pang of conscience and give freely to panhandlers out of a sense of altruism. They “feel good about themselves” once they’ve helped the needy.
Since many panhandlers require money to buy alcohol or illicit drugs, Gesell said these samaritans often cause more harm to the community than good.
Giving becomes a form of enabling risky or bad behavior.
“I tell people the reality is you are doing the polar opposite. You are helping them get closer to the grave,” Gesell told The Epoch Times.
“We know how much they make. It’s significant. My argument would be most panhandlers—nine times out of 10, you’re fueling a destructive choice and hurting the community. Missing from the discussion is the community’s welfare.”
In San Luis Obispo, a central California city of about 60,000, the homeless problem grew to the point where crime was becoming rampant. There was a “hue and cry” for city officials to act, Gesell said.
The city launched several programs and even hired a biologist to monitor hygiene among the homeless population.
“When I got there, I started asking questions,” Gesell said. “The city had a biologist. Why do you think that is?”
Gesell learned that around 40 percent of homeless people are “Will Not” homeless. These people opt out of the system and are not interested in social service programs that might help them live productive lives. They survive panhandling for money, often preying on the generosity of others.
“So when you talk about the plan to end homelessness, that’s a two-way street,” Gesell said. “Most [Will Not homeless] don’t want anything to do with rules or structure. They will exploit human goodwill and then move on.”
While the willfully homeless comprise most panhandlers, Gesell considers homelessness and panhandling separate but overlapping problems.
Another category of homeless is the “Cannots,” who make up another 40 percent. Through addiction, they’ve become trapped in physical dependency and financial need, panhandling to feed an alcohol or drug habit.
Panhandling becomes a means to a disastrous end, Gesell said.
About 20 percent of the total homeless population are the “Ready Homeless”—people who have fallen on hard times, either through a divorce, job loss, eviction, or home foreclosure.
“But they don’t have the issues these other two groups have,” said Gesell. “They realize they don’t want to be [homeless] and will do what it takes to avail themselves of programs and transition out.”
“The public believes the vast majority of [panhandlers] are those 20 percent, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
It follows that these 20 percent who panhandle to survive will continue to grow in number as economic conditions deteriorate, the chief said.
The National Homeless Law Center (NHLC) said falling wages and rising rents are two key factors contributing to a nationwide increase in panhandling.
In response, more communities are criminalizing panhandling to control or eliminate it—43 percent more communities have done so during the past ten years alone—though many communities fail to recognize the systemic causes of panhandling.
Complicating matters is that panhandling is free expression under the U.S. Constitution, so long as it takes place on public property.
On private property, it is trespassing.
The NHLC said studies show most panhandlers spend their money on food and other necessities, noting that the average panhandler makes about $300 a month.
Some communities, like Oklahoma City, have launched programs to reduce the number of panhandlers by paying them to clean city parks.
Gesell said that these programs don’t pay enough to discourage panhandlers, who can earn more begging on the street.
The city of Cottonwood recently began formulating a 10-year plan to end homelessness and, under Gesell’s guidance, posted signs at five retail store locations to discourage panhandling.
“It’s OK to say no to panhandlers,” the sign reads, instructing samaritans to increase donations to local charities that serve the homeless.
It Pays to Smile
Wearing a court jester’s cap and holding a cardboard sign, “Family In Need,” Woneta Odem-Thompson, 46, smiled and waved at motorists as she stood near the front entrance to the Safeway retail complex in Cottonwood.
Odem-Thompson said she and her two young daughters and three small dogs have been homeless since July and living in a 2006 Dodge Caravan. Both girls attend a Cottonwood elementary school.
Formerly of Nevada, Odem-Thompson’s backstory is a tragic one of spousal abuse and betrayal.
The situation reached the point where leaving was the only solution. Odem-Thompson aims to trade her minivan for a 1979 camper and set down roots in a local RV campsite. That way, she’ll have stability and a place to call home.
“We knew the consequences of coming here: we would be homeless for a while,” said Odem-Thompson.
“There’s not enough housing, but there are tons of job opportunities. I’ve got applications in so many places. I’m just waiting for return calls.”
Odem-Thompson said her daily routine begins with getting her daughters dressed and ready for school before she drops them off.
With that phase accomplished, she heads back into town, finds a place to park, and checks her phone for email. Then she’ll dash off another job application or two before the next phase of her day begins—panhandling for money to buy food and gas.
No Address, No Job
Odem-Thompson said not having a physical address deters most employers from hiring her as it makes her appear unreliable.
“I think that’s why we get overlooked a lot. We don’t have that physical address saying we have stability. Buy my vehicle runs and takes me wherever I need to go. That’s my stability right now.”
On a good day, Odem-Thompson can bring in as much as $125 panhandling—”two bucks” on a bad day. She panhandles only when she needs food and fuel for the minivan.
“Being willing to smile and talk to people does seem to help” attract contributions. “It passes the time for me.”
“You know, when I first started, I felt degraded. I felt low. Then I realized, you know what? I’m brave enough to stand out here and do this. That’s a total step up. I know a lot of people who will go completely without. They’ll go hungry. I’m not letting my kids go hungry.”
What keeps her going is “knowing that I’ve got my kids—and knowing that life is going to get better.”
When Chief Gesell learned of Odem-Thompson’s situation, he sent an officer to check on her and confirmed she has two daughters enrolled in a local school. However, school officials expressed concern about their absences and safety.
Gesell said that a single homeless mother with children normally would try to find immediate housing and resources through social services. Odem-Thompson has turned down multiple housing offers,” illustrating a “great example of the complexity of the topic,” he said.
A 2002 study by the Arizona State University’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing found that panhandlers fall into two categories: passive and aggressive, along with two distinct views of panhandlers, sympathetic and unsympathetic.
People who sympathize with panhandlers see them doing what they need to survive. Those who share no such sympathy view them as a blight on the community and a source of crime.
Gesell said the evidence supports the latter view and that many panhandlers use intimidation to solicit money. Others resort to fraud, using fake oxygen tanks, crutches, children, pets, and other emotional props for tugging at a samaritan’s heartstrings.
The ASU study said that panhandlers usually choose high-profile locations to beg for money: street corners, store entrances, highway off-ramps, sidewalks, and traffic light intersections, and generally run in seasonal patterns.
“It sounds callous, but that’s the intent of a panhandler—it’s a sales pitch,” Gesell said. “That’s the most frustrating part, knowing whether it’s true or not.”
Gesell said the law in many cases has a chilling effect on communities trying to control the proliferation of panhandlers.
“You can see that chilling effect. Why not proactively address [the problem] and meet with panhandlers? We understand that in this demographic, there are people who have fallen on hard times and don’t know where to go.”
“The alternative is we allow these scenes to devolve into a higher level crime where people go to jail and become a burden on the taxpayer,” Gesell said.
That panhandlers are an “eyesore” is the top complaint Gesell’s department hears from residents and businesses. Still, the question remains: Is it better to give to or ignore panhandlers?
Gesell’s advice is caveat emptor—”Let the buyer beware.”
“That’s your starting point. If you’re OK with the odds that’s a personal decision, [but] think about the community as well.”