The invisible man 

A writer goes homeless to see who cares

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"I suppose by panhandling," he said. "The more intrusive you are, the harder it is for them to ignore you. Have you tried any signs? You could sort of experiment with a humorous one. It seems wrong that people might more readily pay for the entertainment quotient, but I bet they do."

Maybe mine was a marketing problem. I was certainly well-qualified: a bachelor's degree in business and economics; a nearly complete master's in writing; years of marketing, promotion and public relations experience. Robert was right. I decided to advertise. I would, in the panhandlers' words, "fly a sign." Maybe humor would work: "Aliens abducted ex-wife. Need money for ransom—so they will keep her." Surely some chap would sympathize with that. "My grandma got run over by a reindeer. Need money for hospital bills."



Higgins Avenue, Downtown

When I arrived at my spot at the intersection of Higgins and Main, two homeless people, Hobo and Heather, were already flying a sign: "Ninja's killed my family. Need $ for kung fu lessons." Professionals had trumped me.

I asked them about the best panhandling locations and methods and they gave me the scoop. I asked Heather how much money she makes panhandling.

"About 10 to 15 dollars per day," she said, "and that takes all day. You have to be patient. This is a full-time job."

click to enlarge Of 162 passersby, these children gave one of only two donations. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The amount was consistent with the numbers other panhandlers had quoted to me. Even if she were fudging, at least some panhandlers clearly do not make as much money as some people believe.

I asked Hobo, "Which of your signs is the most effective?"

He laughed. "'Bigfoot kidnapped my sister. Need beef jerky for ransom.' Once, someone even bought me a package of beef jerky."

Heather smiled. "People don't want a sob story. We just try to make them smile."

She cheerfully greeted about half of the pedestrians. Her friendliness was earnest but it also seemed to circumvent people's most common reaction: ignoring them. A few smiled, some returned the greeting and some scowled, but most looked straight ahead as if they didn't see her. I'd spent enough time on the street to recognize that disregard. It's the hardest part of surviving on the streets—the message that you're less valuable than other people.

Hobo left to visit his parole officer, and I flew my signs with Heather, who was four months pregnant with Hobo's baby. She said Hobo and she know they had to stop couch surfing and find a place to live, but they couldn't afford the deposit and jobs were scarce. She signed up with the Missoula Job Service and wrote a résumé, she said, but she hadn't landed a job. If work wasn't available, Hobo and she would have to leave town. But they wanted to stay. Like many of the homeless, they love Missoula, not for its social services but for the beauty of its scenery and the warmth of its people.

I flew my humorous signs with Heather. Not a single person smiled but a few snarled. Many ignored us, acting as if they didn't see the signs but sneaking quick glances. Mid-afternoon, I moved north on Higgins and in two hours made seven cents, all from one man. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's all I have."

Late in the afternoon, I plopped down near the Army Navy Economy Store and resorted to old-school sign verbiage: "Please help. $ God bless." Not 10 minutes later, a woman came out of the store with two little girls. She passed without so much as a glance but her children looked right at me. The woman handed one of the girls a dollar and the girl wheeled around, holding out the money and standing there facing me with the kind of awkward silence that passes between two children who haven't met.

"Oh, thank you," I said.

The girl grinned. She raised her hand in the air and gave me a high-five.

Downtown street: 162 pedestrians, two donations. Thoughts of the two little girls stuck in my head. They had looked right at me, the person inside the rags. One day they'll grow more distrusting and become better judges of character, I thought. I hoped not.

And I wondered whether age makes a difference in how a person responds. How might college students react?



University Center, University of Montana

I set up in front of the University of Montana's version of a mall, the University Center, one of the busiest locations on campus. Sinking to the sidewalk, I placed an empty paper cup in front of me. I did not fly a sign or ask for money. I simply hung my head and stared at the concrete, peering out over my eyeglasses, under the bill of my hat.

Over the next half hour, 134 pairs of shoes walked by. Hikers, loafers, cowboy boots, tennis shoes, leather boots up to the calf. None of the footwear stopped.

A voice caught me by surprise. "You want a couple of bucks for something to eat?"

click to enlarge An empty cup on North Higgins Avenue - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The woman wore odd shoes similar to cowboy boots, with the shafts cut off at the ankles. Her black socks, embroidered with gray stitching, covered her calves.

A pang of guilt came over me and I almost refused. Who was I to take her money? She probably needed it for her lunch or her tuition or her child's lunch. But my stomach won out. I had not eaten for 18 hours because I wanted the tinge of hunger to drive my trolling for food and money. I had not brought cash or a debit card. I held out my hand.

"Go inside, it's warm," she said.

Another hour and another 202 persons, some chatting on phones or texting, some visiting with friends or walking alone. Their reactions felt like a hybrid of the adults and children I had encountered. A higher percentage greeted me but many had already learned the art of ignoring. I thought about the maturation process and wondered if we adults don't lose something along the way.

Finally, a young woman leaned down so that she could see my eyes. She showed not the slightest fear. "Excuse me," she said, "would you like something to drink, some hot chocolate or coffee?" She sounded as if she were inviting a friend to dinner.

This time I did not hesitate. "Could I have something to eat?"

"What would you like?"

"Anything," I said, and she disappeared inside.

After she left, a young man held out two bananas. "Would you like one?"

I snatched it, tearing off the peel, biting off a third and eating without manners. The sweetness exploded across my tongue.

The young woman returned with a piece of carrot cake. Another student gave me a chocolate muffin.

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