When Damon McCoy graduated from George Mason University in 1997 with a degree in political science, he had no visions of earning his daily wages by holding a sign at 13th and Myrtle streets in Boise deliberately asking for a handout. And when Tony Young owned and operated Debra's Country Store, a chain of eight gas stations and convenience stores in Mississippi, he never thought his entrepreneurial spirit would be on public display at the exit of the WinCo parking lot downtown, where he holds a piece of cardboard scrawled with the reminder to passers-by that "anything helps."
But with unemployment at nearly 30-year highs, McCoy and Young have become desperate, and by all accounts, they represent a growing number of men, women and families--many with educations and work histories--who have resorted to panhandling just to stay alive.
"No matter where you go now in town now, there are people flying signs. It seems like you can't find a store anymore where there isn't someone out asking for money," said Henry Krewer, mission coordinator for Corpus Christi House, a day shelter that allows homeless people in Boise to shower, do laundry, work on computers, use the phone, receive mail and any other "ordinary stuff," as Krewer puts it, "that homeless people just don't have."
"Flying signs" is street lingo for panhandling. And although there are no official numbers on how many people are doing it in Boise, citations against "flyers" have gone up dramatically in the past year. In 2008, only 15 citations were given for breaking the Idaho traffic code that prohibits soliciting for employment, business or unauthorized contributions. So far in 2009, that number has spiked to 98.
According to Lynn Hightower, the public information officer for the Boise Police Department, that increase is due in part to direction that came from the Boise City Attorney's Office earlier this year, which instructed officers to no longer write up panhandlers for disorderly conduct--a criminal misdemeanor--when they wander into the street or when they solicit on private property. Instead, those panhandlers are now hit with the Idaho traffic code violation.
In October, a group of homeless men and women sued the city citing, among other things, indiscriminate use of the disorderly conduct charge against them.
Police and advocates agree that the numbers are changing, but Krewer points out that panhandling now comes with a new face.
"The character of the people flying signs has changed," Krewer said. "It used to be that people flying signs were looking for a drink, but now with the shelters full, a lot of people are flying signs to get a motel room. That's a big change."
According to Krewer, shelters don't turn people away. But overflows have them resorting to sleeping people on the floor, and for mothers with children, that is not a viable option.
The changing face of the panhandler can also be seen, if one takes them at their word, in their signs.
"Family in car. Please help," one sign at the Walmart on Overland Road read. "Mother of two little girls," and "This is how I feed my family," claimed two more signs downtown.
For Carey Salo, a 34-year-old homeless single mom who, on a snowy day this fall, panhandled at the Albertsons on 17th and State streets, creativity and humor in her signage has served her well. She says she once flew a sign that earned her $400 in a day. It read, "Bet you can't hit me with a quarter." Another sign read, "I'm having visions of a cheeseburger."
But $400 day is a rarity for a panhandler. Most of the panhandlers interviewed by Boise Weekly said a highly successful day can bring in $100, but typically they only garner $20 to $40 over the course of a few hours.
"You have to swallow your pride, forget you're a human being and realize that everyone on the planet thinks you're scum. It's kind of a pain in the ass," Salo said, explaining how it feels to ask strangers for money. "I'm not willing to do anything illegal. I'm not selling drugs and I'm not selling me, so I stand on a corner and fly a cardboard sign."
Salo's way with words is no surprise considering she graduated from Washington State University with a degree in English literature and a dream of being an English teacher. However, that dream started to fade, she said, after she got pregnant, then married and later started to battle bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, conditions that make her eligible for disability--assistance she hopes to obtain within the next few months.
Salo, who spends her nights at Interfaith Sanctuary, wasn't homeless just three months ago. She says the combination of cleaning houses, weeding yards and occasional panhandling was making it possible to rent a one-bedroom house. But as the recession worsened, she said, her clients could no longer afford her services and had to let her go.
Boise City Councilwoman Maryanne Jordan said the Downtown Boise Association and the Mayor's Downtown Task Force are considering the establishment of contribution stations where folks who are reluctant to give to a panhandler directly can make a donation.
"Giving to a panhandler is an individual judgment that people have to make," Jordan said.
Krewer had this advice: "My advice is if you have a doubt about someone flying a sign, err on the side of helping them. Flying a sign is when you've hit the bottom of the barrel. They're usually in need."