Pan­han­dlers find fewer have a dime to spare

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By­mala Sliber

WASH­ING­TON» John Sul­li­van wears a gi­ant foam hat in the shape of a whale. It works well as a con­ver­sa­tion starter when he pan­han­dles on the cor­ner of Wis­con­sin Av­enue and M Street in Ge­orge­town. But one hot af­ter­noon in July, no one stops to ask Sul­li­van about the whale. And no one stops to drop a dol­lar in his pink plas­tic cup.

Pass­ing by, one young man in sun­glasses turns and shrugs. “I don’t have any cash,” he says apolo­get­i­cally.

That’s a re­frain Sul­li­van has heard a lot lately. He has pan­han­dled in the same spot for al­most 20 years and has a good rap­port with the lo­cals, who call him “the whale man.” But in the past three years or so, more and more pedes­tri­ans have been telling him that they no longer carry paper bills or loose change.

Sul­li­van’s good-na­tured about it: “I’ll see you next time,” he says with a smile if a passerby claims to have noth­ing but a credit card. Lots of peo­ple ac­tu­ally do come back the next day with change, he says – but still, he takes in only half what he once did.

Or­lando Chase, who pan­han­dles on the same cor­ner as Sul­li­van, isn’t quite as pa­tient as his friend. “They say they got credit cards,” he scoffs. “I gotta eat. I can’t eat with their credit cards. That’s a done deal.”

A decade ago, you prob­a­bly wouldn’t have thought to go out with­out at least a crum­pled $5 or $10 bill in your pocket. Nowa­days, though, you can use credit cards just about any­where – and a growabout ing num­ber of smart­phone apps are let­ting us swap clumsy cash for sim­ple swipes when pay­ing a cab­driver, tip­ping a de­liv­ery guy or even split­ting a tab with a friend.

It’s all very ef­fi­cient. But for pan­han­dlers and street ven­dors, all that ef­fi­ciency just trans­lates into a whole lot less gen­eros­ity.

Within the next five to 10 years, the United States could be­come a “less-cash” or “cash-light” so­ci­ety. That’s the pre­dic­tion of Har­vard econ­o­mist Ken­neth S. Ro­goff, who en­vi­sions a day when phys­i­cal cur­rency will be phased out of most le­gal trans­ac­tions. A re­cent sur­vey by Ip­sos found that 38 per­cent of U.S. re­spon­dents would ditch cash com­pletely if they could, while 34 per­cent re­port that they al­ready rarely carry it.

In his book “The Curse of Cash,” Ro­goff sug­gests that a cashless so­ci­ety could pro­vide heav­ily sub­si­dized debit-card ac­counts and per­haps smart­phones to low-in­come in­di­vid­u­als. He notes that in Swe­den, where less than a fifth of trans­ac­tions are con­ducted with cash, some pan­han­dlers al­ready ac­cept do­na­tions via mo­bile phones.

But it’s hard to imag­ine some vet­er­ans of Wash­ing­ton’s streets ad­just­ing to such a sys­tem, which would re­quire a bank ac­count and a Square credit-card pro­ces­sor, not to men­tion time, in­ter­net ac­cess and tech­no­log­i­cal savvy. Chase is 60 years old and has pan­han­dled with a plas­tic cup for years: He had never heard of Square.

As for Sul­li­van, the “whale man” wouldn’t de­ploy his smart­phone in the course of pan­han­dling. “If you got a phone, peo­ple think, how can a home­less per­son have that?” he says. “They think dif­fer­ently of you.”

In 2003, James Davis was stay­ing at the Cen­tral Union Mis­sion shel­ter when he heard about plans to start a news­pa­per writ­ten and sold by the home­less. He be­came one of the first staff mem­bers of Street Sense, a bi­weekly news­pa­per home­less­ness and other so­cial is­sues. The paper’s ven­dors – most of whom are home­less – dis­trib­ute it on the street for a sug­gested do­na­tion of $2.

Davis is no longer home­less, thanks in part to the money he earned writ­ing for and selling Street Sense, and he now trains other ven­dors.

In re­cent years, many have com­plained that they’re just not bring­ing in any money. “The new ven­dors get dis­cour­aged be­cause peo­ple don’t stop any­more,” Davis says. “I say, it’s just be­cause they don’t have cash. I know be­cause I’ve got three kids.” They’re all mil­len­ni­als, he says, and none carry change.

In Seat­tle, en­tre­pre­neur Jonathan Ku­mar has de­vel­oped an app called “Sa­mar­i­tan,” which equips home­less in­di­vid­u­als with Blue­tooth-en­abled “bea­cons.” When some­one passes a “bea­con holder,” they can do­nate via the app. Bea­con hold­ers can then use the funds to pur­chase goods from par­tic­i­pat­ing lo­cal mer­chants.

Why keep pan­han­dling, when it’s less lu­cra­tive these days?

Sul­li­van plies his trade just a few blocks from the Ge­orge­town Min­istry Cen­ter’s shel­ter. He knows the staff, and he’ll ac­cept a bot­tle of Ga­torade from the shel­ter di­rec­tor, but never his of­fer of a place to sleep. He prefers to set his own sched­ule and earn his own money: It’s what he’s done for decades, and he’s not go­ing to stop now.

Even as pan­han­dling be­comes harder, he finds a cer­tain joy in it. “Peo­ple don’t owe you noth­ing,” he says. “It’s all about the love.” His reg­u­lars, at least, still usu­ally have change for him — or if they don’t, they might buy him a sand­wich.

Marvin Joseph, The Wash­ing­ton Post

Or­lando Chase, stand­ing, and John Sul­li­van, a.k.a. "the whale man," pan­han­dle at their usual spot in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Passersby in­creas­ingly tell them they have no cash.

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