Undercover Panhandling: What did I learn and what did I earn?

11:57 AM, Feb 3, 2011   |    comments
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Video: Undercover Panhandling: Behind the Scenes

  • Grayson Kamm panhandling undercover
  • The intersection of West Shore and Spruce/Boy Scout near International Plaza
  • Holding a dollar bill, Grayson walks back from a car window
  • Grayson's sign holds a small camera and says "THANK YOU"
  • A woman hands Grayson his first dollar of the day
  • A man scoops about $1.50 worth of change into Grayson's hand
  • A woman hands Grayson a folded dollar bill
  • Grayson in his panhandling vest and in a suit

Tampa, Florida -- What could I learn, and what could I earn, in one morning with a sign up and a hand out?

To find out what it's like to panhandle, I spent three hours at a Tampa intersection with a simple cardboard sign that said only, "THANK YOU." I stuck a tiny video camera through a cutout in the sign.

Gallery: Pictures of Grayson Kamm undercover with panhandlers

I was undercover, but out in the open. I didn't make up a story. If anyone asked, I wasn't going to lie about who I am.

And I won't keep the cash. Every dollar handed to me will be doubled by 10 News and donated to charity.

Three hours in the sun

Wearing a yellow reflective vest, a sweatshirt, jeans, and a 13-year old old Devil Rays baseball cap, I stood in a mulch-covered median at Spruce St. and West Shore Blvd. near International Plaza.

I looked down. "There's actually a spot worn out right here where people have been standing and panhandling," I said into a microphone hidden under my clothing. Because of privacy laws, I used the microphone's on-off switch to make sure it would record only my own voice.

I was not alone at the intersection. Another man was on the opposite median, also asking for whatever folks will spare.

So what will they spare?

Like the traffic, the donations were stop-and-go. A woman leaned out the window of an SUV to hand me my first dollar. Two more bucks came in quick succession from two more female drivers. Then the pace slowed.

"Not exactly lucrative so far. Forty-five minutes in and I have three dollars," I said into my mic. Two 10 News photographers standing out of sight recorded my audio and covered two different angles of the intersection.

A friendly woman offered me an ice cream sandwich. A man opened his minivan door and scooped into my hand what turned out to be about $1.50 in change.

Passing the time

As the time passed, I looked for things to break the monotony of standing and squinting into the sun. Someone set off the main alarm at the Crate & Barrel store near the intersection. It wailed for a minute or so.

More wailing came a bit later when a woman in a black sedan was jamming to "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe" with the volume loud enough for me to hear it, even though she had the windows closed.

Some folks stared straight ahead. Others gave me a nod. "This driver pulled way up so he doesn't have to make eye contact with me," I said as a black SUV came to a stop.

No one was rude. There we no hollers to "get a job!"

"It doesn't feel degrading like I thought it would. It really doesn't. It's like any other sales job. You just stand out here and people either say yes or they say no," I said, making observations between red lights.

"I do find myself getting pretty excited when somebody leans down anywhere near the middle of their car, like they're going for money. That's weird -- you get excited about that. Also, it's lousy staring into the sun, not enjoying that."

In three hours on the median, how much did I make? Back to that in a minute.

Why do you give?

Once my three-hour shift was done, I wanted to know why folks had been willing to hand me cash.

Kelly Leonard explained through her car's open window at a red light, saying, "I'm a veteran myself, and I'll give veterans money. But when I see people that look all strung out and stuff, I won't give them money."

Don't count on a camouflage coat for all of your information. The man on the other median at this intersection was wearing a dark green camouflage jacket. He goes by Rudy, and he says he's never served in the military.

"I have to do what I have to do. I'm not proud about flying a sign," Rudy told me.

"I got out of prison, and ever since I've been out of prison, everywhere I go to apply for a job, they tell me I'm not qualified. And what got me out here? To keep from being in those shelters around those alcoholics and drug addicts," he said.

"I come out here and fly a sign and earn me some money so I can keep me a motel nightly. I average about, maybe, $43 a day and my motel room is $39. I get me something to eat and a bus pass, and I'm set."

Roy Saringo was one of the drivers who stuck a single out the window for Rudy. "It just felt compelling," Saringo said. "I don't do it very often. But in this situation, it just felt like something I wanted to do."

The day's biggest handouts

My two biggest donations of the day also came with stories. I counted through the stack of ones handed to me by a cigar-smoking man in an SUV. He'd handed me $7, the largest single handout I received.

As I stepped back from his window, he asked if I knew why he'd given me money. It was my sign, he said. The message, "THANK YOU," was straightforward and simple.

Another big donation came from a smiling woman who told me she thought she recognized me. She didn't think she knew me from TV -- she thought I was a resident of a homeless shelter where she worked.

Homeless shelters are generally nonprofit organizations, "so you know she's not making a lot of money," I said, as I watched her pull across the intersection and hand cash to Rudy as well. "And yet, she's giving out her money to me and that gentleman. That's amazing. Five dollars -- the second-biggest amount I've gotten all day."

My three hours brought in $25.54. That's $8.51 an hour. It sure beats $7.25 an hour -- the federal minimum wage. "And if I were keeping this instead of donating it to charity, I wouldn't be paying any taxes on it," I said, thinking about the situation. "Because I'm sure not going to be filing a W-2 for this."

It was pretty easy work. And, yeah, it did pay better than my first part-time job.

But, as I put down my sign and headed home, I realized I'm able to just walk away. For many folks, this is their life. And there's no safe home waiting at the end of the day.

Connect with 10 News multi-media journalist Grayson Kamm
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Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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