How Much Do Panhandlers Make?

A homeless panhandler sitting down.

Have you ever seen a homeless person or panhandler on the street asking for money or walking between idle cars on the highway with a bucket or cup? Of course you have. Just about everybody in the United States has seen this scenario and it’s common in the majority of other countries as well. So I’m sure you’ve often wondered how much these people actually make when they are begging like that. I used to think that majority of these people are starving and hungry and really need the money to survive or feed their families. I used to think that giving homeless people money was the right thing to do in most circumstances.


But then I became homeless myself and ended up living around these people, talking to them every day, and watching how they do business along the sidewalks and roads in Northern California. What I found out about these people and their way of making money would both shock and anger me. So how much do panhandlers make when they’re out there asking for your money? Well it differs from person to person and area to area, but in my experience a beggar or panhandler earns anywhere between $10 a day to $100 a day. There are many different factors that can affect how much or how little one makes, so here’s a little background on how I discovered the truth and some estimated statistics on how much they make depending on the scenario or person.


Before I Became Homeless
When I was a teenager growing up in Florida, my mother decided to take me on a trip to California so I could meet some distant family members and get away from Florida for a few weeks. This was one of the best times I had and because of this trip I decided to eventually move to California when I was older. While on this trip, I met my uncle who gave me $100 one day and told me not to tell my mother. I was a bad kid at this point, probably about 14 years old, and I wanted to buy cigarettes but was much too young to buy them myself. So one day while i was skateboarding along a sidewalk in San Jose, California I happened along a homeless man with a United States flag begging for change. I told him that if he would buy me cigarettes, I would give him $50.


So I at first gave him $5, and he went in and bought a pack of cigarettes for me and came out and I told him to keep the change then handed him a $50 bill. I remember riding back on my skateboard that day and thinking that I just did a really good thing, even though smoking cigarettes behind my mother’s back and at such a young age was a bad thing. I felt good about the experience and over the years there would be many times that I would give money to the homeless when I was doing well financially and saw them out there on the street. There was one Thanksgiving when I was 25 where I was coming home from work and gave a man $25 who I would see every day panhandling along the highway. I had given him a few dollars here and there over the course of a year, which would probably add up into the hundreds because I took this route home from work every day and it was a regular occurrence. But this was Thanksgiving so I thought I’d be extra generous on this occasion. He seemed so happy to receive it and again, I felt good about what I did.


When I Was Homeless
In 2011, I was 29 years old and became homeless myself. This ironically happened in the same city of San Jose where I originally gave that homeless man money when I was 14 and where I gave that other man money when i was 25. At first I tried to stay at my Aunt’s house but this didn’t work out and I was only able to stay there one night. I then ended up sleeping in a shelter for a few days until I noticed people sleeping outside of it in tents and on sleeping bags. So I decided to do that since there were so many rules in the shelter and I didn’t enjoy showering around some of the patrons there, which was mandatory if you wanted to stay there each night. So I got to know a lot of people in the 6 months I was homeless, not just outside this shelter, but all across the city. I would go to other shelters or church’s to receive food or take showers when fewer people were around and so I met many people who stayed on the different sides of town.


I never panhandled because I was making a little money from the internet, which I would work on at the library each day. But I did eat the free meals at the shelters, churches, and the Salvation Army and I did apply for food stamps, though I was only able to receive around $30 a month because I already had the small amount of income online and because I had no expenses like paying rent. So I never gave panhandling a shot because I didn’t really need to and besides, I would probably be too embarrassed or prideful to go out there and beg. But I did sleep around lots of the people and beggars who did panhandle, and I did hang out with many of them during the day and got to know them and watched how they did things and also learned how much they make on average.


Shocking Discovery
It really angered me when I found out how much your average panhandler makes, because I remembered back to when I had given many of them money. I felt swindled or conned, because I was able to see the other side of the fence and saw how easy it was for them to get free food from so many different sources without having to take advantage of everyday people on their way to and from work. So what I’m about to say is based entirely on my witness accounts and based on first-hand personal experience around these people. If I had to put a figure out there as to how much your average homeless person makes per day from panhandling, I would estimate it to be around $15-$30, at least in Northern California or around our area. I can’t speak for other cities in the USA and especially not for other countries. But the average person I saw that panhandled made around that amount if they were out there for around 4 hours a day. But this did vary a lot depending on many different factors.


How Much Each Panhandler Makes:

Tom (Daily Money Earned Panhandling: $40 – $100/Per Hour Earnings: $10 – $25)
One man I knew, let’s call him Tom, made an average of $40-$70 a day while standing on a sidewalk near an exit of the interstate highway. Sometimes he would make more than $100, and he would only panhandle for about 4 hours each day. This man had an arm missing from a motorcycle accident when he was in his 20’s. Now in his 60’s, he fit the perfect image of a Vietnam War veteran with his missing arm and his dingy camouflaged clothing and his American flag that he would often carry around. I spent at least two months sleeping around this person and drinking with him at night when there was nothing better to do. So whenever he got together the topic of how much he made for the day would always come up.


The truth is that many people gave him money because they assumed he was a veteran, based on his look, even though he never claimed to be a veteran. He may have been a veteran for all I know, as I never asked him about it. But he certainly didn’t lose his arm that way and he shared his motorcycle accident story with pretty much all the homeless people out there when we’d get together and people asked him how it happened. In addition to the $40-$70 this man made each day, he was receiving disability checks to the tune of around $1,000 a month as well. Plus he was getting free food from the shelters so this allowed him to spend his money on alcohol each night and pocket the rest into his savings account.


Pablo (Daily Money Earned Panhandling: $20 – $40/Per Hour Earnings: $10 – $15)
Now next to his tent was another man who was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Let’s just call him Pablo, although that wasn’t his real name. I got to know Pablo really well and he was a really nice guy, so I could care less about his legal status or not. But Pablo was constantly panhandling and even panhandled his fellow homeless people. He was always asking me for money and he was a very hardcore alcoholic. We did talk about his alcohol problem a few times and he stated that he didn’t drink until he became homeless and it allows him to cope with everything. The main problem with his drinking problem was that he was doing it with other people’s money. He would get free food from the food service trucks each day (the trucks which Californians refer to as “Roach Coaches”), in addition to the free food from the shelter nearby.


He would then go up to the local gas station and sit outside it, near a group of about four other homeless people and ask for change from people walking into the store. These two groups, Pablo and the four other people, were separated according to seniority. The group of four people were well known junkies around our homeless community and they would spend a lot of their money on drugs, particularly crystal meth. Pablo was not allowed to panhandle with these people because he was strictly an alcoholic and they were junkies and so what he wanted to do with his money didn’t benefit them and their interests. So they would not allow him to panhandle on their end of the store, which was near the exit door. So he was near the entrance door and panhandled people as they were walking in, while the group of four panhandlers would beg for money from people who were walking out of the store. The door near the exit was a better location since people are more willing to give change after they’ve bought what they need and have broken down larger bills into change. But they still didn’t like Pablo being out there because the few people who did give him money probably would be more willing to give money upon exiting if they hadn’t already given some to Pablo.


I sat out there with Pablo a few times and then around the group of four a few times. Pablo made about $10 an hour both times I sat out there with him. The group of four would take turns asking people for money and they made a little more than that per hour but they had to split that money between four people. Pablo said that he would panhandle in other areas of the city and had less luck because majority of the people on those sides were not Hispanic. He said Hispanic people were more willing to give him money than other types of people because he himself was Hispanic and people often look out for their own kind. This may hold some truth to it, as I’m white and I feel that if I were to panhandle, another white person may be more willing to give me money than to give Pablo money.


Vicky (Daily Money Earned Panhandling: $15 – $80/Per Hour Earnings: $15 – $20)
Another person I knew was a woman named Vicky. Vicky’s main method of making money as a hobo was by standing in the middle of an intersection with a sign that read “Need Food. Help Please”. The ironic thing about Vicky and her sign is that every day I would eat at the shelter and often sat at her table when she was in there eating. Then she would walk just 3 blocks down the street and get her sign out of the bushes and stand there acting as if she was hungry. She would spend most of the money on drugs, as she would regularly use illegal drugs from what I saw.


Her demeanor when standing out in the street begging was very timid and needy looking, but once she returned to the shelter at night she was very loud and belligerent and rude to others. When she stood out on the street, it was as if she was getting into character like an actress does with a movie role. She was very good at this and those who gave her money probably wouldn’t have done it if they saw her regular personality or knew that she was getting meals from all the local shelters already (along with any food stamps she was most likely receiving and selling for cash).


It’s hard to say how much Vicky earned daily because she wasn’t very talkative about it, but she spent at least 2 hours every day panhandling just before it was dinner time at the shelter and I once heard her tell a friend that she had made $32 for the day. Assuming she was only out there for her regular schedule of about two hours, that comes out to a little over $15 per hour. Now keep in mind, she didn’t have the best spot where she would post up, as there wasn’t much traffic and there was already other panhandlers in the area to cut into some of her profits (due to the shelter being nearby). So all in all, she did pretty well for herself and was an expert at making a sad face when she had to.