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September 18, 2014

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What it’s like to beg in Las Vegas

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COURTESY OF COURTNEY CHIN

Paul, who says he doesn’t have a last name, stands near Maryland Parkway and Tropicana Avenue on Friday, July 25, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Every morning, Paul treks a half mile from the porch of an abandoned single-wide mobile home to the corner of Maryland Parkway and Tropicana Avenue.

He posts himself on the sidewalk and holds a cardboard sign chest-high, hoping its faded scrawl will draw motorists' attention despite the larger red letters of the Del Taco restaurant behind him — which themselves aren’t as bright as they once were.

“Hungry, please help, Thank you,” the sign reads.

With a red light forcing traffic to roll to a stop on the busy streets near UNLV, Paul slowly plods down the length of the sidewalk, boldly imploring the eyes of each driver.

If they make eye contact, he stands in his spot a little longer and holds his sign up a little higher, hoping for any loose change or crumpled bills they may be willing to give.

If they keep their eyes straight ahead, Paul shuffles farther down the sidewalk, suffering the heat and exhaust fumes.

This is how the 57-year-old, who says he doesn’t have a last name because he doesn’t have a family, makes his living.

That is, until he sees a Metro Police car.

“They’re good guys. This is just a respect thing,” Paul says as he folds up his sign and turns his back on the line of cars. “They don’t want to see it, so I don’t stick it in their face.”

Paul is one of 3,494 people identified as an unsheltered homeless person by the 2014 Southern Nevada Homeless Census and Survey and one of many people in the valley Metro classifies as a panhandler.

Begging for money in the street is illegal as it requires pedestrians to use the roadway, placing them in danger and potentially obstructing traffic.

It is a misdemeanor — a punishable offense that Paul knows all too well, which is why he tries to keep his business on the sidewalk.

“I’ve gotten a ticket like five or six times,” he says, a toothless grin peering through his thick, white beard.

An officer will spot him meandering through the stopped traffic, Paul says, and pull into the Del Taco parking lot behind him, hands poised to write up a ticket.

Paul typically ends up misplacing his tickets and missing his court dates, which results in police issuing a warrant for his arrest.

When he is taken into custody and seated before a judge, he pleads not guilty and is quickly released back onto the streets.

Paul said he received a ticket one day for simply putting his foot into the street in an attempt to collect change from the passenger of a car.

Police said he was illegally obstructing traffic.

“But, it was alright. The officer handed me two dollars and said he wasn’t an asshole,” Paul says, laughing.

Even though penalties from Metro can range from a warning to a $1,000 fine depending on the officer, Paul isn’t bitter about having to dig into his savings.

As a self-proclaimed Prince of Beggars, Paul makes $15 to $20 an hour — $25 an hour on a good day. He guesses that’s more than the average panhandler, “who probably doesn’t get more than $10 a day.”

He never sees much competition from other panhandlers, he says, because it’s difficult for them to make any money when he’s doing his job.

He attributes his success to his friendly demeanor.

“I’m not aggressive,” he said. “If people don’t want to give me money, I don’t care.”

Paul seems to have developed a trick, though. He tends to linger around cars occupied by men just a little bit longer than cars occupied solely by women.

He believes that men will feel more compelled to give if they sense some camaraderie. Most of the time, they do.

“I’m self-employed, so it’s like one working man to another,” he says.

Although panhandling wasn’t Paul’s first choice when it came to careers, it seemed like the only choice after he lost his job as a telemarketer three years ago.

He worked on commission. Because he couldn’t sell much, he was let go.

With no means to support himself or pay rent, Paul lost his apartment and ended up on the streets — a cycle that is repeated by about 50 percent of the city’s homeless, according to the Nevada homeless survey.

“It’s tough out here,” he said, his blue eyes searching the grubby roads. “People are dirty. Some don’t wash their hands.”

He believes the conditions in homeless shelters are even worse, which is why he starts his work at the intersection every morning around 11 a.m.

The intersection at Maryland and Tropicana is his favorite spot.

He finds it harder to make money in other parts of town, like Summerlin, because people aren’t accustomed to beggars, so they’re less likely to give.

Paul only operates during red lights, which occur at intervals of about 90 seconds. It is 108 degrees one morning when he begins his routine.

Most of the occupants avoid the gaze of his eyes, choosing instead to focus on their phones or on activity up ahead.

The passenger side window of a red GMC lowers, releasing the sound of an R&B tune onto the street.

A female hand reaches out, clutching a dollar bill and a bottle of water. Paul’s eyes widen as he quickens his pace and walks over to the car.

“Thank you. God bless you. Have a nice day,” he says.

The woman answers back with a smile.

Seconds later, the window of a white Jeep Cherokee rolls down, and a man offers Paul some change.

When the light turns green, he walks back to the corner of the intersection with $2.38 in hand.

As noon comes and goes, Paul continues his silent parade down the sidewalk. He receives money from people driving all types of cars, ranging from Fiat 500s to Nissans. Some hand him coins, while others pass paper bills and offerings of food.

In one 90-second session, Paul collects a $5 bill from the driver of a green Toyota.

The one car whose occupants never give money?

“Mustangs.” Paul says. “It’s rare to get anything from a BMW, but Mustangs never give.”

While he rarely faces outward resistance to his panhandling, he has had drivers shout at him to get a job.

He once responded by creating a new sign that read, “Need money. Can you give me a job?”

But with zero offers, he went back to begging for money.

Paul believes that people enjoy helping the less fortunate, and he’s gotten some interesting donations to prove it.

The biggest gift he’s ever received from a motorist was $100, a bong and a small bag of weed.

Paul says he could probably make enough money to rent his own apartment, but finding a place to stay isn’t his top priority at the moment.

“I’m really cost savvy,” he said. “All I really need to take care of myself is food and water.”

Which is what most of his money goes toward. The rest of the savings, he uses to try to do some good.

Paul is trying to save enough money to buy a fairy dress from Party City for a little girl who brings him a water bottle every day as she waits with her mom at the bus stop near Maryland and Tropicana.

The dress costs $32 to $40. For Paul to buy the dress and still have some money left over for food, he would have to work an extra couple of hours.

“People like to think that we’re all alcoholics or drug addicts,” Paul said. “They don’t know me. They don’t know us. You can’t put a label like that on people.”

After two hours of standing in extreme heat, arms and legs covered, Paul folds up his sign and gets ready to leave. With about $43 in his pocket, Paul walks down Tropicana in search of food and shelter from the sun.

At night, he will return to his bed on the porch of the trailer until he can start his shift again in the morning.

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