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A day on the streets with a young panhandler

Taking a break from his street corner, a young man named Andrew opened a box of take-out breakfast a motorist gave him. He peeked in warily. A few stale bits of egg, a soggy piece of toast, a couple sausages.

“I'm not that hungry yet,” he said.

Parked next to him, a cardboard sign that read, “Young Couple w/a Baby on the Way Anything Helps.”
Andrew, 22, said he had been panhandling at this Grand Rapids corner for about a month. Unlike many panhandlers, he had his own car, a 1993 Mercury Sable with just over 175,000 miles. And a girlfriend who was expecting a baby by the end of the year. He asked that his face not be shown in a photo.

He said he and his girlfriend were trying to save enough money to get their own apartment. For now, they stayed in a nearby motel which cost about $30 a day.

“Once we get an apartment, we can get ahead. We're just trying to crawl out of this hole, slowly but surely.”

Andrew said he has been out on his own since about age 14, when he left a troubled home and dropped out of school. He crashed with friends, shared a house or apartment, and performed all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet.

He ticked off a list, including maintenance, landscaping, construction, painting, even the odd job fixing someone's computer. Along the way, he earned his GED.

He moved out west about two years ago to take a job doing maintenance work. He recently did a 10-day stint renovating a small discount store in the Grand Rapids area.

“I pretty much always worked,” he said.

Andrew said he resents news reports on panhandling that focus on drug addicts or alcoholics, who put their donations toward booze or drugs.

“They go out and interview a few drunks. Somebody that's legit, that's doing it for the right reasons, they ruin it for everyone else.”

He is aware that many cities in the Grand Rapids area ban what he is doing. He fully expects Grand Rapids to adopt a similar ban soon.

But he sees hypocrisy.

“You can hold a sign for a store but you can't do this. If you're not pestering people, if you're not running out in the road, then I don't see an issue. I think it makes people uncomfortable.”
Like any panhandler, said he's had his share of unpleasant encounters.

“I had people throw quarters at me, throw food and trash at me. I had a woman throw a penny at me, and say, 'Here you go, loser.'”

A few minutes later, stopped at the light, a woman in a Volvo station wagon handed him four dollars through the window.

“There are good people,” Andrew said.

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