The real life of a panhandler


Meet Charles, one of the dozens of people in Halifax who make their living on the streets of our city.

Charles* spent three years panhandling in a local business park. We recently sat down with him to better understand why people panhandle, and other challenges and issues they face.

*Charles’ name has been changed for privacy reasons.

“Please help a man in need. Thank you.”

For three years, rain or shine, winter and summer, Charles took a bus every weekday from his apartment in Halifax to a business park with a handmade sign bearing those words. He arrived early in the morning to make sure he got his spot (competition for a choice location can be intense) and stood beside a busy big-box store, past which thousands of people drove daily.

One time, he recalls, a man came up to him and simply asked, “What’s your problem?” Charles’ answer was simple: “It’s just the cost of living. I got a nice little place, but by the time the rent’s paid and everything, there’s not much left.”

Like many panhandlers, Charles was not homeless. For years, he had lived on social assistance in Dartmouth, with just a few hundred dollars to spare at the end of the month for food, clothing and anything else. When he moved to Halifax in 2013, the higher cost of living ate up much of that extra money, leaving him with only $200 or so every month after living expenses. A friend of his, who was already panhandling, suggested Charles give it a try.

“He made me a sign, and he showed me how to do it,” says Charles. “And after a while I got my own spot.”

Panhandling is real work

Charles commuted every day, put in hours of effort, in all kinds of weather, and managed all sorts of interpersonal conflicts with both passersby and other panhandlers. He was judged, verbally abused, and even scolded for owning a cell phone (which he needed for personal reasons).

Competition with other panhandlers could get downright nasty, too — Charles thinks one competitor filed a police complaint against him, resulting in a $185 fine which took months to pay. (Panhandling is legal, but impeding traffic or causing another disturbance can be cause for a fine.)

For all of it, he usually made less than $40 a day. Charles’ experience runs counter to the idea that anyone panhandles for easy money, or simply because they don’t want to work. The reality is that panhandling is hard work, and those who do it are often unable to find or maintain other kinds of work.

Panhandlers are just people – with their own challenges

Most panhandlers, says Charles, are simply doing so to stay fed and sheltered day to day. Many are dealing with the personal fallout from difficult pasts or mental-health issues, or simply lack the skills needed to compete in the job market.

“You get so many different personalities,” he says. “People trying to survive.”

But there were plenty of moments of warmth, kindness and generosity during Charles’ panhandling career. Some people would take him to Tim Hortons, or surprise him with the occasional $50 bill. One memorable experience happened just before Christmas one year, when a woman who’d seen him several times brought him a new jacket, new boots, a $50 bill and a box of chocolate. Sometimes, as well, he encountered people who seemed to be going through difficult times of their own.

“This woman one night, it was just getting dark, and she was driving a brand-new car,” Charles recalls. “She was dressed up, she had money. She parked her car and came over, and she handed me two 20s. And I said ‘Miss, that’s a lot of money.’ And she said, ‘Oh no, don’t worry about that.’ But she was really sad. And I’ll tell you I felt bad for her…that happened three or four times, people with money, they’re sad. There’s something missing; you can see it in them.”

Life after panhandling

When Charles started receiving his Old Age Security benefits, he decided to step back and offer his spot to someone who needed it more. But he still looks out for others going through a tough time in life.

Overall, Charles said spending his time panhandling had a profound impact on him. He was exposed to surprising depths of generosity, in spite of the hardships. As for his future, it’s looking rosier since he has his Old Age Security to depend on. “I’m very grateful, I really am,” he says. “I’m content. If I could live to be 100 and have my health, I’d be happy.”