They work busy intersections like they’re greeting lines, approaching each driver with eye contact and a warm smile, a beckoning nod through the car window.
Others just stand as if frozen into place, staring intensely ahead as if trying to see past whatever events in life brought them to this point.
They stand on every street corner in town with their entire lives pared down to one or two phrases scrawled with a Sharpie on the back of a pizza box.
Homeless. Will work. Hungry. Veteran. 50 cents. Anything helps. Need beer. Thank you. God Bless.
Always that last one, God Bless. That tells people that you’re safe, you’re good, you’re just unlucky – but you’re right with the Lord.
People want to know that.
This is what panhandling looks like in the 21st century, a begging sidewalk pantomime; no more “Mister, can you spare a dime.” In street lingo it’s called Flying the Sign. And they are, literally, the signs of our time – soggy wedges of cardboard with messages intended to be creative, poignant, provocative, heart-rending, inspirational or absurd enough to part you from your money.
They tell stories of tough love and hard luck, the story of a fall from grace the same length of a Tweet, a personal missive as an appeal to the presumed charitable nature of the American motorist. This is Panhandling 2.0.
With its accommodating winter temperatures, libertine social attitudes and institutionally detached police force, New Orleans – long a destination for the professional vagrant class – is now overrun with sign flyers. Our famously wide and grassy neutral grounds are swarmed every day with ostensibly down-on-their-luck folks counting on the kindness of strangers.
At many intersections now, you can see the path they have worn down in the grass as they work motorists stuck at red lights.
“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 for the city of Atlanta. “We ought to tax them!”
Koch is no fan of the practice. “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.”
The “real” homeless, that is. Because not all homeless people are panhandlers. And not all panhandlers are homeless. And it’s evident to anyone who travels the same commute every day that many sign flyers approach the activity meticulously, showing up at the same place at the same time every day, working the same skills for the same number of hours every day, weather permitting – and sometimes even not.
It is the same thing, day after day, week after week: a thankless, humiliating rut. If that sounds familiar, you’re correct: For some folks, Flying the Sign is their job.
Personally, I’m no fan of the trade either. For one, I don’t like being guilted or conned, particularly when I’m just trying to get on with my day, sometimes with less money than some of these folks have in their pockets.
And that leads to a second objection to the practice, which gets back to what Koch said above: It creates a pervasive sense of skepticism among motorists who are beleaguered by sign flyers as the navigate their way through their errands, chores and obligations. There are so many of them – in all shapes, sizes and appearances – that it’s impossible to know who really needs help and who’s just grifting.
To try and answer that for myself, I spoke with about a dozen sign flyers recently to ask what got them to this point, standing on a street corner asking strangers for money through closed windows.
Each of their stories merit their own column here, but they generally seem to break down into three categories:
“Drew” is here from Portland with his wife, both late 20-somethings. All their IDs and money were stolen from a bus. They are just trying to stay afloat while they figure out their next move.
“Apple Man,” is clearly mentally ill. He works his corner until he has enough money for weed and beer and then quits, gets high and wakes up the next day to do it again.
And “Jesse” is the third category of sign flyer. Neither homeless, mentally ill nor even desperate, she recently quit her job as a waitress in the French Quarter.
“I hate people,” she told me. “I couldn’t stand working in that restaurant anymore. 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, “Plus, I don’t have to deal with asshole customers.”
All of her signs had “God Bless” written across the bottom.