Raymond Hauser was hitchhiking from his hometown of Joplin, Mo., to California when he ran out of money in Canadian County three weeks ago.
Now, Hauser, 50, can be found on a street corner near Interstate 40 and MacArthur Boulevard in Oklahoma City “sign-flashing,” something most people call panhandling.
“I'm living my life day-to-day,” Hauser said.
Hauser says he is homeless and that he lives off the generosity of Oklahomans who drive past his corner.
“Every corner around here will be full. I'm here every day, all day. This is work. Sometimes we have people fight for corners,” Hauser said.
He said he saw three fistfights on his corner Tuesday, but most of the time, people know to live by the “hobo rules.”
These rules include “walking the line,” going 30 minutes on then 30 minutes off the corner for other “sign-flashers,” and never making verbal contact with drivers unless it's to thank them for their generosity.
Ralph, who did not wish to give his last name to The Oklahoman, is another man who said has fallen on hard times. He was found standing on a corner near Memorial Road and Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I came to Oklahoma because everyone was talking about all these jobs in Oklahoma. It's tough out there. I'm a 58-year-old man, and I have applications all over this city — at Wendy's, at McDonald's — but they ain't hiring people my age,” Ralph said.
While many panhandlers claim to be homeless, a 2008 survey by the Homeless Alliance found that 20 percent of panhandlers were actually homeless.
For the survey, the Homeless Alliance interviewed more than 200 panhandlers, the alliance's Executive Director Dan Straughan said.
The survey also found that a majority of the panhandlers interviewed were panhandling for cash to support unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse.
“I'm sure there are panhandlers out there who have struggled to find employment, and this is just a way that they have to make a little bit of money because they can't find a real job, but I'm going to say from my experience, that is the exception, not the rule,” Straughan said. “There are a lot more places to be actively engaged (in finding a job) than standing out on street corner and putting your hand out.”
As a way to not enable unhealthy behaviors, the Homeless Alliance developed the Real Change voucher program which allows people to give panhandlers a $1 voucher which acts as bus fare to one of the Homeless Alliance multipurpose shelter, he said.
“By giving (a panhandler) that bus token, you haven't contributed to their ongoing self-destruction. That's a tool whereby people can indulge their impulse to charity and the tool itself discriminates between those who are genuinely needy and those who are not,” Straughan said.
If a person is approached by a panhandler, it is better to make eye contact and acknowledge the panhandler rather than ignoring them, he said.
“If you are being panhandled, you can always say ‘no, not today' or ‘sorry' — that's better than ignoring them,” he said.
Straughan said Oklahoma City has not seen an increase in panhandlers, but instead panhandlers have started panhandling at different locations, becoming more visible.
Though it is a First Amendment right to solicit for funds, Oklahoma City municipal code has defined what behaviors are considered aggressive when panhandling.
To panhandle someone while they are standing in line, to continue to panhandle after an individual has declined to help, to panhandle an individual in a group, and panhandling 20 feet away from an ATM are some examples of aggressive panhandling.
“It's not against the law to ask for help, but it's against the law to badger somebody, asking for help,” Oklahoma City police Capt. Don Martin said.
If a person feels their safety is in jeopardy during or after panhandlers ask them for money, they should call 911, Martin said.