Harrisburg

‘There’s lots of people in Harrisburg who’re beneficiant’: A panhandler’s story – PennLive

You see them with a cardboard sign and a hollow look in their eyes. More and more of them at key intersections throughout Harrisburg and beyond.

They’re panhandlers, pleading with messages scrawled on cardboard, along with smiles and waves.

When traffic stops, they walk the line of idling vehicles waiting for someone to see their need, hoping for a car window to roll down, praying that a little help will pass through.

There are no reliable statistics on panhandling in Harrisburg. But those driving through the city on mid to later afternoons, especially toward the end of the week – payday for those lucky enough to still have jobs – have witnessed the rise in their numbers.

Since the coronavirus hit and the first wave of business lockdowns were ordered in mid-March, crippling the economy, panhandling has proliferated, both here and presumably across the country.

In Harrisburg, they’re at Front and Maclay streets; Front and Forster; Second and Chestnut; Cameron and Market; and Cameron and Maclay, to name a few of the busiest places to panhandle. At various times through the week, you’ll see people there with a sign and an empty palm.

Perhaps, some of those people in cars recognize the coronavirus-caused need is all too real. Clearly, some are giving because the panhandlers keep coming back, day after day, week after week.

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Douglas Irving’s corner is Market and Cameron. For Irving, 52, every time a car stops and a window rolls down, it’s a gift. It could be food, clothes, spare change, a few bucks — or even a $50 bill.

“We come out here, and people give us money,” Irving said. “We don’t ask for it, but they give it to us.”

He’s right. His sign asks for nothing. Instead, it’s a message much-needed in these desperate days, he says.

“My sign is unique. It says, ‘God loves you’.”

The reminder comes with a wide smile and an enthusiastic wave from Irving.

‘I love people’

Irving is all positivity, despite the fact he’s been sleeping in a “cubbyhole” off Market Street for two months. He arrived in Harrisburg earlier this year to live with his sister, following a 17-month stint in a Philadelphia jail.

He admits to struggling with anxiety, substance abuse and conflict much of his life. He says it stems from a stew of childhood emotions, all linked to his father’s violent death back when Irving was a teen.

“I had a rough time coming up. That hurt me a lot,” he said. “I fell out on drugs at one time.”

He says his troubles continued when his mother recently died and living arrangements didn’t work out with his sister. Irving says he landed on the street after a conflict with another resident got him ejected from Bethesda Mission.

But in the five hours or so a day he works his corner for cash, Irving shows the world none of these troubles. With his sign, his smile and a wave, he seeks to provide motorists with a warm feeling that sometimes results in a gift.

“I’m a very happy person, and I love people,” he said.

He considers panhandling his job, and he works hard at it. As Cameron Street traffic stops for the red light, he walks along the line of vehicles, smiling, waving and holding his sign. When it turns green, Irving races to any cars stopped on Market.

It goes on like this for hours – or until Irving receives an especially generous donation and decides to quit early.

When a window rolls down, he says he never knows what’s going to come out. In one case as a PennLive reporter and photographer observed, it’s a fresh sub, newly bought and still in the bag. Other times, he’s been given clothes. And even when the shirt doesn’t fit, he finds a use for it – as a pillowcase.

“There’s a lot of people here in Harrisburg and all over the world who are generous,” Irving said. “One thing about the homeless, we get to see a lot of different people. We get to meet a lot of people. We get to socialize with a lot of people. We do fellowship with a lot of people.”

For panhandlers like Irving, there are two basic kinds of people: Those who see the need and are moved to give, and those who avert their eyes and drum their fingers on the steering wheel, counting the seconds until the interminable traffic light turns colors so they can speed away.

Irving says he’s fine with either reaction. They’re all God’s children, he says. He and his sign are there to remind them of this, especially amid such hard times.

For doing God’s work, Irving says his reward comes in the form of food, clothes and, yes, cold hard cash.

His most common donation, he says, is a $20 bill. He’s received as much as $50. Chump change is few and far between, he added. Most people give paper currency. More often than not, it’s more than a dollar or two.

Irving takes none of it for granted because he says all of it comes from God.

“The nicest thing I ever got was, God gave me strength,” he said. “He gave me food, something to eat. He gave me clothing. It’s all a gift, and I give thanks to God, my Lord and Savior.”

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday are the best days for donations, he says. Payday has arrived and the weekend is beckoning.

“Sometimes when they stop, you don’t get a big donation; you get a little donation,” he said. “But it’s acceptable. I accept it – in my heart – you know what I’m saying? When you’re homeless, it’s not about what people give. It’s about need.”

By the grace of God and through the kindness of strangers, Irving says his needs are being met.

Some aren’t homeless

No doubt, every panhandler has different needs, along with a separate set of motivations.

Not all are homeless, according to those who provide outreach services. Anne Guenin, executive director of Downtown Daily Bread, said she doesn’t recognize any of the people at intersections across the city. None are clients of her organization, which provides day- and night-shelters, mail services, hot lunches and various other programs to the homeless and needy.

The practice of panhandling divides the homeless community, itself.

Big Mark, dubbed “mayor” of the homeless encampment off of South Front Street, says some of the panhandlers in Harrisburg are legitimately homeless, while others may use the donated cash to make ends meet in an apartment or a house.

Big Mark says he had no illusions about why some people panhandle. Many are serving a drug or alcohol habit, he says. Some use the money for fast food like burgers and pizza, even though free meals abound in the city. Other have “wants” but not necessarily needs.

“There’s some out there that claim to be homeless that are not,” Big Mark said of the current crop of city panhandlers. “There are some out there who are seriously on the streets and need the help. Some guys do it just to support their habit.”

Big Mark, who’s been homeless more than a decade, doesn’t begrudge anyone from making a buck any which way they can. But what this Vietnam veteran’s son won’t abide is panhandlers pretending to be military vets to gain sympathy and juice their donations.

“I know of at least four who claim to be veterans,” he said. “If I see them out doing it, I’ll holler at them, ‘Why in the hell are you lying? You know you didn’t serve.’ And if they have a crowd of people around, I’ll say, ‘All right give the guy the money, but he’s going to smoke it. It’s not going where you think it’s going’.”

‘God gives me the strength’

Douglas Irving receives a sub from a passing motorist while panhandling on the corner of Cameron and Market Streets in Harrisburg on Dec. 2, 2020.
Joe Hermitt | jhermitt@pennlive.com

For Irving, as winter approaches and his Market Street cubbyhole grows colder, he says he’s thinking of seeking a warm bed in the Downtown Daily Bread night shelter. But he has no intentions of giving up his “day job” of holding his sign and smiling and waving at Market and Cameron streets.

After all, nothing puts people in the giving mood like Christmas and the coming holiday season.

He only hopes that with the coronavirus raging again, people are brave enough to roll down their windows and spread the joy.

“With this COVID thing, some people are afraid to open the window,” he said. “I mean, I wear gloves, and we still got air!”

For others, though, the worsening pandemic will make them more willing to give, Irving said. They’ll see the need.

For this Irving believes, above all: God will provide.

No matter what.

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