WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - After a few months of shooting surveillance video, it became clear that few of the signs panhandlers hold spell out any truth.
"They're manipulative and tactical, there's no doubt about it," said David Ray, who owns a business in Monkey Junction.
"Oh I know who's faking," Steve Barton said, taking a break from holding his sign. "I won't put names out there, but I know who's faking."
In some cases you'll see, a "disabled" sign paired with the use of a cane. We watched one man who frequents Wilmington's corners use it on a highly variable basis. He explained that he had back problems and needed it.
That didn't account for the days he was observed panhandling with an extreme limp and then walking home without it's use. Or seeing the cane holding him up before he hopped on a bicycle or later was watched carrying heavy boxes in and out of his apartment.
Children are also used as props. It can be as simple as a pushed out belly to fake "pregnant" on a sign. It may be the use of a car seat conspicuously placed in their car to indicate a baby who doesn't exist. In other cases children are sat down on the ground as the parent (or whoever) begs with a sign about their family.
Another technique is the empty gas can. Known as "parking lot pimping," this is where a beggar will patrol a parking lot asking patrols for spare change to fill up his broken down car. While not as profitable (approximately $80 a day), it's easy.
Backpacks are also common and are indicative of an individual who is carrying his whole life in a bag. Until you see him or her head into their car or apartment.
The technique that pulls at heartstrings the most is the use of a pet, usually a dog.
"He gives the dog the dog food but saves the can and puts Campbell's soup in there and sit and eat his soup out of the dog food can, so it appears that he's so broke that he's eating the dog food and dog's not eating," explained Michael Page, sitting inside the North Carolina Harm Reduction Office. "He thinks that's a good lick for him and he makes more money. It's all a mirage."
Randy Evans has met many of the panhandlers through his organization Walking Tall and he's often suggested they try brutal honesty.
"You have nothing to lose. You're not going suddenly be out of poverty if you write on your sign 'I need money for a miller lite' or 'I need money for a pack of cigarettes' or to fill my prescription," he said.
Whether their written words are an outright lie or the honest truth, all the panhandlers agree on one thing: free money has a price. Their humiliation.
"We're all just one bad decision away from being in the exact same bad place they are," said Officer Josh Tranthum, who has dealt with many of them. "We make a wrong choice or we do something we shouldn't do and we could easily end up with no money, nowhere to go. The reason I've got such a good relationship with a lot of them is because I can see myself put out there if I made some of the same decisions they made."
"It doesn't take much to go from the top to the bottom," Elizabeth pointed out. "I just think people need to realize that. They could be one paycheck away from being right out there."