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How Cardboard Signs Changed the Face of Panhandling in America

"Flying a sign," as it's called, is a way for the homeless to make their pleas to passersby quickly, silently, and without defying laws against aggressive panhandling.
May 18, 2015, 7:00pm
Sign-flying in New Orleans. All photos by Mary Lou Uttermohlen

Through the ages, the art of panhandling has required of its practitioners equal measures of patience, persistence, and moxie. But the practice has been revolutionized in recent years by the addition of an unlikely yet indispensable skill-set: literary finesse.

The most important tool of the trade these days is the soggy underside of a cardboard box, upon which is scrawled a message that can be creative, poignant, provocative, heart-rending, inspirational, or funny enough to part you from your money.

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Despite their primitive appearance, these signs represent an important technology for panhandlers, a way for them to tell their stories of hard luck to passing pedestrians and motorists. You see sign-holders on street corners everywhere now, in big cities and small towns across the country.

"It's a whole new industry," says Stacy Horn Koch, the former director of homeless policy for the city of New Orleans and now in the same position in Atlanta. "We ought to tax them!"

The practice is often called "flying a sign." It's a sales pitch, a street-corner PowerPoint presentation, a cry for help. In some cities, it is, indeed, a cottage industry—quite literally, a sign of the times.

"The panhandler reminds the American public that not everyone is making it in our society, and that makes them uncomfortable," says Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, based in Washington, DC.

Koch, no fan of the practice, says that discomfort translates into animosity. As an advocate for the homeless, she says sign-flyers are tapping into the limited pool of sympathy money in any community. "It makes the public really angry," she says. "Because every time they stop at a corner, someone is banging on their window asking for money. It creates a total lack of empathy and sympathy for the homeless."

Related: Miley Cyrus has launched a charity for homeless LGBT youth.

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With its accommodating winter temperatures, libertine social attitudes, and institutionally detached police force, my city of New Orleans—long a destination for vagrants—is now overrun with sign-flyers. The famously wide, European-style boulevards here, with their broad and spacious median strips—known locally as "neutral grounds"—have become prime real estate for this popular form of panhandling.

Seemingly every major intersection in this town now features at least one, if not four—or more—ostensibly down-on-their-luck folks counting on the kindness of strangers.

"The reason people do it is because it gets results," says Marjorie Esman, director of the Louisiana chapter of the ACLU, which has advocated—not only here, but across the country—for the rights of sign-flyers. "You can choose to give them money or choose not to give them money. But if it didn't get results, people wouldn't do it."

Out on the streets of the city, the folks who actually fly the signs will tell you that nobody's getting rich by holding up a piece of cardboard.

The association of panhandlers with drugs and alcohol is both predictable and easy.

"It's not what I'd call profitable," one sign-flyer told me recently. "It's more like the luck of the draw, or even more like fishing: On a good day, you catch some money."

He identified himself, after careful consideration, as "Drew." His short beard was meticulously groomed and his clothes were clean, but he claimed to be homeless and genuinely desperate. His wife, who appeared to be asleep, lay stretched in the shade across a cement wall under a nearby interstate overpass. She is suffering from schizophrenic spells, he said. All their money and identification was apparently in her purse when it was stolen at a bus station six months ago.

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Drew's been working intersections just outside New Orleans's famed French Quarter ever since the theft, while the two of them—natives of the Pacific Northwest—try to figure out what to do and where to go next.

"Maybe some of these people out here want to be doing this, but I don't," he said. "It's humbling. It's humiliating. People judge you. They scream, 'Get a job!' And I say, 'Give me one!" but they've already got their window rolled up and are driving away. What they don't know is that without any identification, I can't get a job."

Drew says $30 constitutes a good day's wage. "That's enough for two people to eat, plus cigarettes and, well… other stuff, sometimes."

He considered his next words carefully, tucking his sign under his arm and squinting off in the direction of the setting sun. "Everyone out here has issues, man," he went on. "And everyone out here is on drugs or alcohol. That's probably just what you want to hear, but it's true."

Flying a sign in Las Vegas. All photos by Mary Lou Uttermohlen

The association of panhandlers with drugs and alcohol is both predictable and easy. (The third link in the chain is mental illness.) When I approached a guy who identifies himself as the Apple Man and was working across the intersection from Drew this past Mother's Day, before I could even finish asking him what circumstances have brought him to this point, he blurted out: "Addiction!"

He's called the Apple Man because he smokes his weed out of cored apples. He said he's been flying signs since Hurricane Katrina, ten years ago this summer, and that it's a more lucrative—and hassle-free—alternative to bumming spare change from tourists in the French Quarter.

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New Orleans is one of many cities across the US that has enacted "aggressive panhandling" legislation, which can be interpreted in some jurisdictions as any interaction in which one person asks another for money.

"If I walk up to you on the sidewalk and ask you for a dollar, that's 'aggressive panhandling,'" the Apple Man explained. "I can go to jail for that. I have gone to jail for that. But if I just stand here with a sign, that's legal. That's my First Amendment."

Esman, from the ACLU, concurs. "Nobody has a constitutional right not to be offended," she says. "But everybody does have the right to free speech. That's the price we pay for living in a free society."

The Apple Man is a rough-looking character to be sure, beat down by life on the streets and bearing facial scars and open wounds on his hands that mark a hard existence.

But not everyone out here seems so street-worn.

At sunset one evening a couple weeks ago, I met a twentysomething woman named Jesse who had just finished a three-hour shift on the streets outside of the French Quarter.

Jesse and other scammers like her are the minority, the experts say. Most folks you see standing there with imploring eyes are truly, well, imploring.

She had several signs tucked into her backpack, each scrawled with messages depicting varying levels of desperation, whimsy, or gratitude—depending on what she perceived to be the prevailing mood of motorists on any given day.

"If it's a nice car, like a European import, you want to look really needy," she said.

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All of her signs had "God Bless" written across the bottom. That's a trope now. Whether your claim is that of a homeless veteran or a Katrina victim or just a wise-ass gutterpunk with a sign that says, "I need beer," writing "God Bless" on the bottom of your sign is telling passersby that you're safe, you're good, you're just unlucky, but you're right with the Lord.

People want to know that.

But here's the thing about Jesse: She's not homeless. She's not desperate. She just sees sign-flying as a better alternative to the waitressing job she told me she just quit.

"I hate people. I couldn't stand working in that restaurant anymore," she said. "So I started flying the sign and found out I can make as much—or more—money doing this than I did at the restaurant. In half the time."

She paused and added, "And I don't have to deal with asshole customers."

Jesse and other scammers like her are the minority, the experts say. Most folks you see standing there with imploring eyes are truly, well, imploring.

"If someone appears to be young and able, but is still flying a sign, my assumption is that they are in need," says Stoops, from the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Otherwise they would not be doing the undignified act of asking strangers for money."

Esman echoed that sentiment: "Somebody might look to you like they are perfectly healthy and able to get a job, but maybe they are not. You can't tell what burdens people carry just by their appearance. Those of us who have better advantages will never know what it's like for those who don't."

Stoops and Esman say flying a sign is not so much a trend as much as it is the new face of an age-old institution: begging.

"It's part of the urban—and even suburban—way of life, and it's not going to go away," Stoops added.

Chris Rose is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of the New York Times bestseller 1 Dead in Attic.

Mary Lou Uttermohlen is an editorial based photographer in New Orleans and has a long term personal project documenting the homeless.