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.