Panhandlers might have more cash on hand than you do

By Aaron Diamant

That panhandler pestering you for change in Downtown Memphis just might have more cash on him than you do. A Target Five investigation found many beggars in our area - making big bucks. Some nights it seems you can't go three feet in parts of Memphis without a panhandler asking you for money. Feel sorry for them? We found guys out there who make a pretty good living, living off of others.

A "pied panhandler" of Beale Street is jammin' all the way to the bank. Michael Antonio is a panhandler. "There's men out here right now making hundreds and hundreds." Hundreds of dollars just by asking for it. You see, in downtown Memphis, panhandling is kinda like poker. You can make big money and few people ever call your bluff. We called another panhandler "Little Walter Wannabe's." Turns out he's far from broke.

James Harvey is frustrated with panhandlers. "They down here hustling and begging and while I'm here working 8 hours a day and they make 150 dollars while I make 90 dollars. I should be a bum snatcher." Apparently, he wouldn't even need much of an angle. Franklin Simpson just follows around groups of tourists. Simpson added, "I could average 200 dollars a night if I was just straight out panhandling." And this guy hits up couples using nothing more than a smile.

All these guys have one thing in common: they're breaking the law. Not because they're panhandling, but because they're panhandling without a panhandling permit. That's right --certain kinds of panhandling are legal. About 10 years ago the city of Memphis passed an ordinance requiring anyone begging for money to have a permit "in his or her possession at all times, subject to exhibition or demand by any person." The permits are free. The only problem, they didn't really catch on. "I ain't never seen no permit."

We spoke to one official who told us the city never actually issued any panhandling permits because no one ever stopped by City Hall to pick one up. Which means, sometimes panhandlers need to break some sort of other law, like making threats or blocking traffic to get arrested. Police arrested Robert Irby last month for tying up traffic while panhandling in a busy intersection. Officers found more than 900 one dollar bills on him. Inspector S. J. Smith, Memphis Police said, "There's no telling where he came from he might have come from another location with that money prior to getting here. He just got caught at that particular time. I don't believe he got that from just panhandling per se in Memphis." Maybe not all of it, but odds are some of it. not far from Beale Street, which his panhandling peers say is still a beggar's bounty.

Since police can't lock them all up, we're told the only way to get rid of the panhandlers is to not make it worth their while. Police say every dollar we give them is one more reason for them to keep it up.