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Homeless Find Cash In A Variety Of Ways

While it may not be pleasant to be homeless, in a town like Portland it is possible to meet your basic daily needs.

That’s because of services that provide free food, a warm shower and clean clothes. But it's still common to see people panhandling or holding a sign on the side of the road asking for money.

In this the final installment of OPB's series on homelessness, Kristian Foden-Vencil took to the streets to ask people how they get cash and what they use it for.

Kristian Burt is 18, tall, blonde and homeless. He's wearing relatively new clothes, he's clean after a night spent in a shelter, and he's headed to get a free breakfast at downtown soup kitchen.

Kristian Burt: "I wouldn't say anything isn't being strickly met. Your basic needs are there. But there's also just. Even privacy is almost a privilege that you end up having to pay for around here."

Kristian Foden-Vencil: "Is that what you mean getting a hotel room for the night?

Kristian Burt: "Yeah. Just so you're not in a room with 10 plus people."

Kristian Foden-Vencil: "I could understand that for sure. Maybe just to get out of the weather for one night."

Kristian Burt: "Oh, Yeah."

Renting a hotel room might seem like something a homeless person couldn't afford. But 21-year-old Tyler Brown,says getting away from everyone, getting warm, clean and watching TV for a night, helps him retain some degree of humanity.

Tyler Brown: "You can have a hotel room for $26 a night. Which isn't bad at all."

Joe Whitmer is older and pushing a shopping trolley filled with cans and bottles. He doesn't use his money for hotel rooms, but he says, just like everyone else, homeless people need cash.

Joe Whitmer: "Yeah you have to have some source of income. You can get just about anything you want out here in Portland, except cash. And you need cash for certain things that you just can't get out here."

Whitmer walks the streets in front of the recycling trucks. On an average day, he says he collects 300 cans and bottles, that will fetch $15 at a recycling station.

Michael Grey does the same thing and he says how much he makes depends on the time of the year.

Michael Gray: "I could make up to $30 a day maybe $40.

Kristian Foden-Vencil: "Why is it different in the summer and winter?"

Michael Gray: "Lots of beer drinkers."

Kristian Foden-Vencil: "More beer drinkers, more beer bottles."

Michael Gray: "Lots of cans. Everybody wants to do the cans but sometimes you've got to get 300 pounds of glass to make $8."

Some days he walks six hours. But he says, it's better than panhandling or standing on the side of the road.

Michael Gray: "I might bum a smoke from somebody once in a while. But it's too damn cold out here. That's why I just keep walking. Otherwise you're going to freeze."

About 10 blocks away, Everett and Dotty — who only want to be called by their first names — stand on a busy street corner. He's holding a sign that says 'Anything Helps.' 

Everett: "Usually if we're out here, we can make $8 to $50."

Kristian Foden-Vencil: "In how long? An hour?"

Everett: "No, no, 8 hours. This is like a job for us.

Krisian Foden-Vencil: "Some people will say you shouldn't give people money because they're going to spend it on alcohol. What do you say to that?

Everett: "We both have mental problems and we do drink our alcohol. We have people come by here and say please do not spend this money on your alcohol and I smoke and they ask me not to do that. And generally we try to do that for those people."

Marvin Mitchell is one of those who would caution against giving cash to the homeless. He’s the director of the Julia West House, a shelter in downtown Portland where someone can get a free cup of coffee, a chair and a warm room to sit in. 

While he understands homeless people need cash just like everyone else, he argues against what he calls "dangerous compassion."

Marvin Mitchell: "Last summer, one of the guests who we saw regularly, was found. I found him against the 405 fence. He'd overdosed. I called 911. The coroner came and took his body away. Whoever had given him $5, thinking it would help, was dead wrong."

And there isn’t just concern about how people spend cash— but also how they earn it. While some homeless people work at odd jobs for spending money, some prefer the bigger sums that come from selling drugs or prostitution.

Others sell their food stamps.

A food stamp is really a debit card. It doesn't have your name on it, but there's a pin number. A  homeless person who is single gets about $200 a month. 

Kevin, who won't give his last name, sells his for $100. 

Kevin: "If you know the person that you're selling to. You can just give them the card, what the pin number is and say you can do this much."

Kristian Foden-Vencil: "But then can you trust them to give it back to you?"

Kevin: "Oh, yeah, if you know them. If not, you can cancel the card."

The state reports a fraud rate of only about one percent among food stamp recipients.

Mike Budd, known as Buddha, has lived on the streets for about five years. He sells something else to earn cash.

Buddha: "Well, I donate plasma and that gives me $50 a week, so I make an extra 200 bucks a month."

But Marvin Mitchell, the director of Julie West House,  says there’s another reason to give money to those who help the homeless— rather than giving it directly to those on the street.

Marvin Mitchell: "If you give to a local non-profit that can leverage the money, your money will go much further than if you give it to an individual."

Recently, he spent $5 to buy 200 pounds of food.

There is one other way homeless people get money — from family members. And they wrestle with the question of whether to give all the time.