The Rapidian

How homeless is homeless?

I find myself questioning on a daily basis if the homeless people I see every day are truly homeless or just bad actors?
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Homeless, or "gaming" the system?

Homeless, or "gaming" the system? /Chris Freeman

How homeless is homeless?

In the last few years, the economy has been pretty rough. People from all walks of life who once held secure jobs and would never have imagined themselves experiencing financial difficulty were sometimes finding themselves unemployed, underemployed, sacrificing medicine to have money for food and sometimes even homeless. For a short period about 27 years ago, I found myself homeless, so the homeless part has personal significance to me.

There was a time when I would pass the occasional homeless person in Grand Rapids who would ask me for money, and I would typically give that person a couple of bucks and be on my way. It isn’t something I really put a lot of thought into. These people were less fortunate than me and I hoped that a couple dollars might help them get a sandwich or maybe an article of clothing to keep warm in the inclement weather. I was doing this right up until a couple of months ago when I saw something that I perceived as suspicious.

In the last twelve months, it seems that homeless people have gone from being sporadically about the downtown area to being ubiquitous around the city. I was now seeing them on all the downtown freeway ramps and on all of the busy intersections on 28th street. My initial thoughts were, “It’s crazy how bad things have gotten.” I couldn’t hand money to everybody that I saw any longer because there were just too many of them.

Then I noticed it. I saw a “shift change!”

I found myself horrified as I watched somebody get out of a vehicle in a parking lot near 28th street and the East Belt Line, walk up to the “homeless” person who was panhandling, and take his place. He literally took the sign from the hands of the original panhandler, and then the guy who I had seen on the corner first hopped in the car that the second guy had just gotten out of and took off. The sign that the first panhandler had displayed with his long sob story was now in the hands of another man. The story on the sign was now the story of this new man and, I assume, the spoils of the day as well. Watching this really weighed heavily on me. Over the next couple weeks of paying closer attention, I realized that it was the same cast of characters every day mixing it up on different intersections. I even witnessed the “shift change” two more times. It made me sick to my stomach to see this.

At this point I really wanted to know if these people were homeless, or just actors in the role of a homeless person making a living by tugging at the heartstrings of compassionate passersby. I made a call to the Grand Rapids police and spoke with Captain Dan Savage. I explained to the officer what I had seen and what my thoughts were. I asked him if he had a knowledge base as to whether these people were truly homeless, or just “gaming” the system. I explained to him that I was simply interested in the truth.

Savage informed me that a state law passed in Michigan in 2012 legally secured panhandling as a “freedom of speech” issue and that the police had no grounds to intervene in situations like this at all unless a complaint from the public was filed stating that it was “aggressive.” He explained that he cannot confirm or deny the living situation of any of these people. He also related to me that the preferred way to deal with panhandling, in general, is not to give anybody money.

Wow. I do get it. If panhandlers know that a certain percentage of people will be sympathetic, they will continue to do it. Only by not giving “anybody” money can you discourage the behavior. So why is this bothering me so much? I had to dig deep on this one, but I think that I know why.

When I didn’t have a place to live myself, it was a very serious situation to me and I was genuinely scared. That fear, I believe, motivated me to kick things up a notch and do anything that I could to get out of that situation. I realize that everybody has a different situations and I need to be careful not to pass judgement on them based on the belief that if  they just did x, y and z that their situation would be different.

That is the kind of thing people say when they are comfortable in life and can’t ever fathom that anything could possibly go wrong in their perfect world. I know better, and that is why it goes against my personal nature of wanting to help people who I am concerned might be hungry.

For the time being, I am probably going to hold off on handing money to people that I see at busy intersections who brandish signs with an amazing story about how our recent recession has led them to financial ruin. It hurts me a little inside though.

What if that woman with the sign saying that she is homeless, already has three kids and is pregnant with a fourth is, in fact, telling the truth? What if she really trying her best to get by?

I want to help people where I can because, to me, homelessness is deadly serious.

Faux homelessness as a career path is a slap in the face of those who struggle daily just to keep warm and fed.


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 I'm always glad when this conversation takes place. After working downtown at a non-profit that served the Heartside neighborhood (many of whom where homeless, but not all), I have come to know many of the panhandlers in the area. I have dealt with this issue a lot, and after 5 years, still not come to a set conclusion, apart from a few truths: 1) All panhandlers, like all people, are different. I can't make any blanket statements about them as a group. 2) Even if all of the words on their sign are made up, they are still in need. It may be a very complicated need with no easy solution, which is why the individual may have written down something more people could understand. 3) It is never harmful to acknowledge a human being--to break through that thick, silent barrier between those who ask, and those who are asked. Make eye contact. Say something. There's nothing worse than exposing yourself in front of people and having them actively avoid looking at you, avoid respecting your humanity, no matter what your motivations are. I wrote a blog post about this a few years ago: . I still stand by it.