WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - 'Homelessness' falls on a wide spectrum, from lost jobs that lead to lost homes to the other side of the range where severe mental illness characterizes many of those sleeping on sidewalks and under overpasses.
Originally, the WECT documentary "Fly A Sign" set out to explore all the different facets to homelessness until one group separated itself: the panhandlers.
After hearing their stories, as told by them, you will be left asking yourself whether putting money out the window is an act of good will or instead, your own contribution to an epidemic that has flooded our community.
"When you are good to the streets the streets are good to you," said Elizabeth, adjusting in her chair at the Wilmington Police Department.
She was due to deliver a baby girl any day and had recently been taken into custody with her husband Michael. Both were no stranger to law enforcement but on this day, and for very good reason, she was sitting in the Vice & Narcotics building.
It was from Elizabeth where we first heard the street name for her initial crime of panhandling: "flying a sign."
She was personable, warm and brutally honest, despite the situation she was in. It was something of an indication that dodging law enforcement had not always been her "9-to-5."
"I like to fly the medians because that's where the money is," she said flatly. "Number one you're right there at the driver and they have to see you. I'm animated when I'm out there! I wave 'Hey!' at every car and I'm going to wave at every car until they make eye contact."
Her best one-time stint at a corner netted $100. The most profitable day was Christmas Eve when she took home several hundred dollars.
In general, income appears to be gender dependent with the females far out-earning their male counterparts. Holidays and rainy, cold days are the biggest money makers.
Elizabeth can outline the likelihood of a good payday based on the day, time and location. She says Saturdays, Fridays and the first of the month are profitable. Wednesdays to Fridays are consistent with people typically having just gotten paid. She says Monday's are the worst.
Lunch time from noon to 2 p.m. is a promising time frame to see dollar bills, as is during rush hour when cars are more likely to be stopped at lights. The 'dead time' is 3-4 p.m. when the panhandlers will usually take a break from being seen at their post.
She claims weekends are consistent from late morning until about 5 p.m. when people are out and about.
Sunday is tricky. Before noon most people are in church. After noon Elizabeth says she's most likely to get gifts of prayer instead of gifts of cash.
"They know exactly what they're doing. It's a business, it's working for yourself," said Detective Allison Jahreis. "They're smart. They're going to work when they can make the most money - when they can be seen and when there's a lot of traffic."
"Changing your spots up helps, because if people see you in the same spot every day they're thinking you're not out here bettering yourself," Elizabeth instructed.
Their locations are not random and at some, you can observe a sort of "shift change" as one panhandler comes off a corner to allow another to take over. In some cases, locations become territorial – particularly the more profitable areas.
Popular spots include the intersection of Oleander Drive and Independence Boulevard, the corner at Whole Foods on Oleander Drive, the intersection of 17th Street and South College Road, and the Monkey Junction Walmart entrances and exits.
Given the volume of traffic at these locations, just a few rolled down windows can quickly add up to a sizable chunk of change in just the course of an hour.
"Flying a sign has been the easiest and quickest way for them to make money over the years," said WPD Officer Josh Tranthum. "It's worked, so there's no reason to change it."
But standing with a sign is not enough to usher in enough money. Instead, there's a bit of technique involved.
"If you are standing at the front and you wait that whole light at the front you've only got three people that can see you," explained Elizabeth. "Walking down you make sure every car sees you."
The first time we saw Elizabeth she was outside of Whole Foods walking back and forth depending on the color of the light. With her signature smile she waved at every car before heading back to the top of the street. It was rare that a light would cycle without at least one car rolling down the window.
Perhaps it was her affability or perhaps it was her 8-month pregnant belly. Perhaps both.
"You'll see guys leaning like this going for their wallet," she demonstrated, leaning over to reach into her pocket. "I try to pause longer in front of those cars because if you walk past they put whatever up. You want to hang out longer."
Panhandlers become quick experts on reading people's facial expressions and body language. It's not unknown to them that they make many a driver or passenger nervous. That's when they'll see phones come out and a pretend conversation begin – all to avoid eye contact.
"That's a terrible thing to do, I feel so guilty I used to do that," she said. "There are some really good people out there and there are people blinded to how the real world really is. Stuff goes on around you every day."