Denver, CO

Things given homeless people who fly signs

David Heitz

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A friend of mine who “flies a sign” in Denver received a fox piggybank from a passerby the other day. She simply drove past, rolled her window down and gave it to him. He didn’t have time to ask where it came from.

He kept saying he hoped it wasn’t a child’s savings bank. I told him it probably was, and that the child probably told the parent to give it to you.

He worried the parent took the bank without the child’s permission. I can appreciate his concern. He probably was wondering if he needed the money bad enough to take it from a child.

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But when I saw that fox bank, I couldn’t help but smile. When you advertise, “Anything helps, God bless” on a sign, maybe you’ll get some spare change and even a $20 bill now and then. But a cute fox piggybank?

The fox bank probably had four or five dollars in it, including one paper dollar bill.

Panhandlers shared what they had with me

My friend who flies the sign isn’t proud of what he does for a living. But he does consider it his job. He faithfully goes to the same spots and plies his trade. He sells gratification. Many people get a rush from helping others or believe it keeps them straight with God.

When I was homeless on the street, I never flew a sign. I never asked anybody for anything, except my fellow homeless people. Who do you think helped me considering I had no income at all? My friends who flew a sign. So, I would never talk smack about someone who panhandles.

A few of them supported me with things I otherwise would have gone without while experiencing homelessness, including things like toilet paper. I am grateful to those who have the courage to try to survive by panhandling. I do not believe anybody deserves the abuse that panhandlers take.

If you’re not interested in giving them anything, ignore them. But screaming profanities and “get a job” simply spreads hate.

My friend is where he’s at in his life right now. He hasn’t always flown a sign for spare change. I’m not sure he could work a real job right now. Working in food service, many jobs have gone by the wayside because of COVID, he told me.

Other things people get panhandling

When he received the fox bank it gave me the idea for this article. I thought I would write about other things homeless people receive that you might not expect. Those things include:

Lots of booze. You would be shocked how many out-of-town Denver tourists pull up in fancy rented cars and pop the trunk outside homeless camps. The alcohol goes fast as everyone runs to it like gnats to sugar. Tourists with leftover booze used to frequently make stops in the parking lot of Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter.

I can say that on many occasions people offered me alcohol on the street. It always struck me that’s the last thing you want to give homeless people. On the other hand, homelessness is tough. And many hardcore homeless alcoholics never will become sober. So why not let them enjoy their juice?

I don’t drink. I gave up alcohol many years ago. But I did drink a few times during homelessness simply because it often was around – for free. And usually it was donated by older people with fancy rental cars.

Bibles. People who “fly signs” like “I won’t lie, I want weed” do in fact get weed. But they also get gifts such as Bibles. Most people who fly a sign regularly have had several Bibles given to them.

Marijuana. Marijuana is legal and a commodity in Denver, and most stoners never like to see a fellow stoner go without. Homeless people commonly are given marijuana if they simply ask for it.

I wouldn’t do that. I never wanted to ask for anything. And as a person with chronic-complex post-traumatic stress disorder and a medical cannabis card, I feigned for marijuana. I should have had the courage to ask for it, as it probably would have prevented some unpleasant encounters with police.

The only people who did help me with my medical cannabis were my friends who had the guts to panhandle.

A fancy, sit-down dinner. I only have heard of this happening once, but a guy in my building who was panhandling across the street by Walmart had a family treat him to surf and turf (steak and lobster) at a fine restaurant. They sat right there and dined with him.

I would have loved to have met the people who bought this guy the fancy dinner. He appreciated every bite of it, I know that. What a great way to make sure homeless people eat the food you give them – eat it with them.

Grocery gift cards. Many people will offer panhandlers food cards for King Soopers. Those are like currency in the homeless community. They often are traded for cash at half their value. This goes back to the beauty of sharing a meal with a homeless person.

Clothing. Sometimes people flying signs are given clothes that don’t fit or may be torn. Other times they hit the jackpot. My friend the other day received a Dockers winter coat in excellent condition. It fits him well.

What homeless people need

When deciding to help a homeless person, know they need certain hygiene items all the time. Socks, toothbrush and toothpaste, hand sanitizer, toilet paper (most homeless people have urgent need) razors and shaving cream for men, tampons for women.

These are items that can be purchased for little money, but when you’re homeless your income is $0. It can be difficult to get a job or any benefits when your identification is missing. Many homeless people are missing their identifications. It can take months to replace an identification.

Most homeless people panhandle because they have no other way to make money. They don't even have money for a cup of coffee at McDonald's, which is like going to a spa for a homeless person.

As a person who experienced homelessness, a few times people randomly gave me money even though I never asked for it. I learned to take the money and say, “Thank you.” It made my day the few times it happened.

But at the end of the day, my friends who “flew signs” kept my basic needs met. And to them I am grateful.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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