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Survival question: Does it pay to panhandle?

By Grace Joyal
Published On: Dec 24 2013 01:16:46 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 02 2013 11:54:26 AM CDT

Grace Joyal has a look behind the signs, lining Bend's major roads, into what it's like to be a panhandler.

BEND, Ore. -

Every morning, Lisa Chisholm and her boyfriend go to work.

"Get up, eat something, get me and the dog dressed, and come out and do this," she says.

Though instead of heading to an office, they set up on the side of a busy Bend street.

"Sometimes, people just throw a penny at ya,” she says. “Cuss at ya. But then you get people who have been in these shoes, and they can’t afford much, but they try to help."

They've been panhandling to survive for almost two years.

"I’m at the end of my rope,” she says. “I'm done."

There are an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Bend. Panhandlers are a common sight. Along Bend’s main thoroughfares, you can find similar stories on street corners all across town, through the window of your car.

“Basically, people panhandle because they’re desperate,” OSU-Cascades Assistant Professor Christopher Wolsko says.

It’s nearly impossible to know who’s really in need, and what they’re using the money for. Often, it’s easiest to just look away.

Panhandling is legal here, as long as no traffic or privacy laws are broken, but does it pay? To find out, NewsChannel 21 reporter Katie Higgins set up shop at the corner of U.S. 97 and Robal Road, the turnout for Cascade Village Shopping Center.

In an hour, Higgins made $8 and half a turkey sandwich. She asked one woman why she gave, and she said it was because you just never know what someone’s going through.

Someone who didn’t offer her money said she didn’t because she doesn’t have enough money herself. Higgins noticed people rolling up their windows, pointing and lots of long stares, leading her to believe that many people were curious as to why she was on the street.

It’s a common perception that panhandlers are like Higgins — not really in need. Wolsko says the idea that people pretend to be homeless to make money panhandling is an urban myth. He says  people’s relationships with panhandlers are complex.

“On the one hand, we have this desire to help our fellow human beings out, but on the other hand, people have pretty negative stereotypes about the poor, the homeless, panhandlers,” he says.

That is, that they’re aggressive, substance abusers, or lazy. Wolsko says Americans believe in individual responsibility — that you’re responsible for your own destiny.

“People tend to often think it’s a personal choice to be on the street and to beg for money.”

Often, an addiction lands someone on the street. A 2006 survey by the National Coalition for the Homeless found about 26 percent of the homeless population deals with substance abuse.

Bend Police Lt. Brian Kindel says when you give, you’re enabling a problem.

“It’s basically giving somebody the ability to buy alcohol and drugs, and not care for themselves or their family,” he says.

Bethlehem Inn Executive Director Gwenn Wysling says it's about educating people about a different way of getting by.

"It's teaching somebody how to ask for help in a different way that's going to give them what they need, be it shelter, food clothing, or somebody to talk to," she says. “We have a community that's very generous in terms of what is offered, what's available out there."

Chisholm and her boyfriend say they panhandle to keep a motel roof over their heads.

"I can't sleep outside,” Chisholm says. “Not in the winter."

This is the only way they've known for the past couple years, but they want you to know...

"Not everybody's a drunk and a drug addict, because we certainly are not,” she says. “We're just people that are really trying to survive until something breaks."

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