Panhandlers: Life on the Street, Part I

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What began a couple years ago as a seeming reminder of a poor economy, now appears to be a trending business. Many busy intersections in and around the Capital City regularly are occupied with people holding signs asking for your help--- even if it's just a smile.

While some certainly are in need, a News 10 investigation in May revealed some people claiming to be homeless-- were not-- and using money to buy things as lavish as big screen TVs.
Some claiming to pull down a couple hundred bucks a day.

While some drivers are still handing out dollars, many more are seeing evidence of things not being on the up and up.

"We were in Frandor and there was a gentlemen with a sign that said will work for food so we grabbed an extra sandwich for him," Beth Cowles told me. "He went and tossed it in a pile with others and went and held his sign back up."

"One time I was at the corner and there was a lady standing there with a sign and she went across the street because she wasn't getting a lot of donations," recalls Alan Sonfilippo-Wilcox. "Behind the electrical box was a wheelchair and a bicycle. She grabbed the wheelchair and brought back over and sat in it."

Like many, Jennifer Burdick isn't heartless, just realistic.
"I feel bad but it kind of disgusts me," she said. "Because I know people who have stopped and asked them if they'd come rake their yard and they're like 'No.'"

The mayor states it flatly, "I do not hand out money on the street."

Legally the city of Lansing can't prohibit panhandling nor does it want to. But Mayor Virg Bernero wants people to know-- you are not helping them by giving them money.

"But if somebody wants to stand on a street corner... and they're making money doing it... this is America," says Bernero. "My job is to make sure there's help available for people who want real help."

"If you really want to give right then, carry some granola bars in your car."

The city spends upwards of two million dollars a year on food and shelter programs for the needy and the homeless, but the mayor thinks the needy and the homeless aren't the ones you see holding signs.

"With some of these folks at the street corners, you get into addiction issues."

Officers on the street tell me they guess 95 percent of the people holding signs use the money they get on the corner for drugs or alcohol. But that number may be inflated a bit. In our investigation, we watched more than one person leave the corner and hop in their car parked nearby and drive home-- one living right around the corner in an apartment.

"I'm sorry to say, these folks, they're out there because they want to be," said Bernero.

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