I've talked with perhaps 30 "panhandlers" in recent weeks. I can't say for sure how many were mentally ill, drug or alcohol addicts, but only 5 or 6 out of the 30 seemed to me to be suffering from anything that more income or a job wouldn't fix. Most were formerly productive working people who've fallen off the bottom rung and are now trapped in extreme poverty.
The most common reasons were long waits to get onto SSDI or not enough money from SSDI to live on. Many are still in a room or apartment and trying to keep a roof over their heads. Some are in tents or sleeping in their cars. One has a goal of $20 a day to pay for staying on someone's couch. All agreed that almost anything - even jail - is better than having to go into the former PIP shelter - if they could even get in. (Many can't!)
Almost all were very clear that they did not want to be begging in the street. It's humiliating, degrading, and they get a lot of hate and abuse from passing motorists. In conversations with me - and with each other that I overhear at the free church breakfasts - they talk of how hard it is to get enough money to meet their goals.
Many spoke with pride of the way they never harass motorists, and of their good relationships with the police. They approved of the way police would chase off or arrest sign-holders who harassed motorists or interfered with traffic, and wondered why a new law would be needed.
Not one referred to themselves or each other as "pan-handlers", which has built into it a suggestion of swindler, scam artist, professional beggar. They refer to themselves as "signers" or "sign-holders". Never have I seen any indication of their being organized. The infamous "white van": someone apparently borrowed it from a relative whose couch they were sleeping on.
For most, the main solutions to their problems are a full-employment economy - we all need that! - higher SSDI payments for those who truly can't work, and more and better help with housing.