$32 and A Loaf of Bread

When I first stepped into the middle of the intersection Route 441 and Sheridan Street, I saw a cop car on the side of the road with lights flashing two blocks away from me.
I was told I should be afraid of cops. According to COSAC Homeless Shelter Founder and Director, Sean Cononie, Hollywood police are cracking down on people like me-homeless and asking for a handout.
I earned $32 and a loaf of multigrain bread in one hour. I did nothing but hold a piece of cardboard with HOMELESS scrawled across it in black ballpoint pen. I paced on the thin sliver of median separating the eight lanes – I was just six miles from COSAC.
It was the most money I’ve ever made in an hour. I was scared shitless. I decided to pose as a homeless person to figure out what goes through the mind of a panhandler. When I drive past someone holding their scrap of cardboard, I avoid looking at them. I’m not proud of it.
The entire time I was terrified of being arrested for panhandling on the side of the road. At one point, another cop drove past me and I almost vomited my heart into my mouth. The officer’s car was only three lanes away from where I stood, so I flipped over my cardboard sign and continued walking, hoping he wouldn’t see me.
When the light turned green, he drove away. He didn’t take the time to notice me. I was relieved, but my hands were still shaking.
After that, I started getting some cash.
The first car to give me money was stopped in the lane closest to me. A ratty, navy blue sedan cracked open its door and a man in a green Publix grocery shirt held two single dollar bills out for me. I hurried over and took the money.
I felt guilty.
This balding, middle-aged man was either on his way to or from work, where he made less money in an hour at a grocery store than I did panhandling. I took two perfectly crisp dollar bills from him. Still, I was glad it had been so easy.
I had no time to relax because a big, sweaty man began walking up and down the road. I was worried he was going to tell me I was on his corner.
For a split second, I was annoyed he was taking over my territory. Then I realized how dumb that sounded. In about two seconds my annoyance morphed back into terror and I resumed avoiding eye contact with him.
The majority of people refused to give me money. A few did. They shrugged their shoulders, said, “good luck,” and were gone once the light turned green. I never felt someone pity me before, but I could see sympathy in their eyes.
I hated that. I would rather them ignore me than look at me with those eyes.
After 30 minutes, a guy with a Haitian accent pulled up in a meticulously clean black jeep. He waved at me and I trotted over to his rolled-down window. He looked me up and down, and then fished through his wallet. “Why do you need to do this?” he asked nodding to the tattered cardboard sign in my hand. “You’re so beautiful. You don’t have any family?”
“No,” I lied.
Then he asked me if I had a boyfriend and my heart began to race again. I thought he might try to proposition me and I wanted the light to change so this guy would give me his money and leave.
“Why aren’t you in school?” he said as I walked away.
“Thank you,” I said as the light finally turned green.
I had only been homeless for 30 minutes and I already didn’t trust anyone around me. I could feel myself disconnecting from the people I would usually consider harmless. Honest questions felt too probing. I found the more people talked to me, the more I wanted them to go away.
People think panhandling is easy. I did. After all, it’s just asking for money. But having to beg for cash, to have people either look at you as a stain on society or completely ignore you, was one of the most upsetting situations I’ve ever put myself in. In an hour I had to un-trust everyone around me because I suddenly felt my value was less.
I donated the cash to COSAC and the loaf of bread to a resident named Judith. Luckily for me, I got to leave after 68 minutes.