Certain kinds of panhandling is legal in Memphis

By Aaron Diamant

Some nights it seems you can't go three feet in Downtown Memphis without a panhandler asking you for money. But a Target 5 investigation found some of them may be carrying more money than you.

In a lot of ways, Memphis is still a panhandler's paradise. Our investigation found beggars who bragged to us about making some serious cash, a lot more than just a couple bucks from a few generous tourists.

Albert Woods is a panhandler. Feel sorry for him? You might not once you find out the sign around his neck only tells part of his story. Woods said, "I had a job, but they laid me off my job and they put me out of the Army and I lost my house."

Woods is out just about every day waiting --patiently-- for handouts from people who usually just stop, stare straight ahead then speed off. "I tell them I need a beer or cigarettes, some ham or something."

It's humbling and at times demoralizing. But in Memphis panhandling pays better than you might think! Reporter: "How much money did you make today?" Woods: "About 10 dollars." Doesn't sound like much, but Woods told us his day started just twenty minutes earlier. He says he finishes some of those days a couple hundred dollars richer. And like Woods, there are hundreds of homeless in Memphis who make a pretty decent living, living off of others.

Paul Buell says he does it. "I can probably make about 60 or 70 dollars a day, sometimes more." A lot more when tourists are in town. Willie Hoover, has lived in downtown Memphis missions for years where he says he often hears his fellow beggars bragging about what they bank. Hoover said, "You get tired of hearing it. 'I made such and such and day.' And you're still here at the mission? Why? That's what I be asking them?"

Many of the men and the downtown homeless shelter know the answer all too well. reporter: "What do you do with the money?" Buell: "I drink it up." But apparently not all of Paul Buell's peers blow all their money on booze.

When police arrested Robert Irby for panhandling last month, his arrest ticket shows officers found more than 900 $1 bills in his pocket. Police say Irby would actually dart out into traffic, stop the cars and ask the driver for money. Inspector S.J. Smith, Memphis Police said, "That surprised me that it's so much money. At the downtown precinct the only money we found so far would be about $20 on an individual. We've never found more than $20."

But clearly some of these guys are making more than that even though for the last year Memphis Police have tried to crack down on downtown panhandling. Since 2002, with the department's help, one county judge has issued more than 2000 citations for panhandling, locked up 400 repeat offenders and issued warrants for 200 more. Still most panhandlers, like Albert Woods, manage to stay out there day after day. The police officers who spot them often just tell them to "take a walk." Woods said, "Police made me get up off the block, but I'll be back down there again though, they might donate more." In some cases hundreds of dollars in just a few hours.

Believe it or not, certain kinds of panhandling is legal in Memphis.