WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - We know that missed paychecks can lead to poverty, but story after story, a lack of income did not appear to be the driving force behind the panhandling signs.
The panhandlers we met over the past seven months often had good families, educations and careers before they ever worked a corner. As they told us, they didn't find their poison after finding the streets. Instead, it's the reason they're there in the first place.
Steve Barton has been on the streets for 15-20 years. When you ask him why, he doesn't hesitate to answer: Alcoholism.
Before his addiction got out of control, Barton worked at a truck stop in Pennsylvania and had another side gig. Meanwhile, his wife worked in New Jersey at a daycare. Together they supported a nice home for themselves on an acre of land with two cars and two dogs.
At his worst, Barton was drinking a case of beer a day. His wife eventually left him and he was quickly unable to fund both his addiction and the roof over his head.
"If I don't have a beer I shake," Barton admitted. "I'm an alcoholic, that's half my problem. I am an alcoholic. No, that IS the problem, I'm an alcoholic."
Barton stood out among the panhandlers we met because of his blunt honesty. He agreed to talk about his life but kindly asked to hide his face. When we pointed out that thousands of people had already seen his face over the years he said he was still embarrassed.
In the footage you will only see his worn sneakers, but what you would remember about Steve if you met him in person was just how big and bright his smile was. And how full his laugh sounded.
"He was an honest guy," said WPD Officer Josh Tranthum. "He would straight out tell you this is why I'm out here. I'm not out here for drugs. I use a little of this money to get food but I get beer too."
Tranthum and Barton got to know each other over the years. Tranthum had seen Barton at his best, sober and clean shaven. At his worst, Barton would barely be able to walk he was so intoxicated. More than a few times Tranthum came across him sleeping on the side of the road.
"Steve wasn't one to go and steal," Tranthum said. "If he didn't have the money he would go without."
Grover White was a different case. We met him near the Walmart close to Market Street.
"I drink every day, I love drinking!" he exclaimed.
White said he drinks about a six pack a day which doesn't cost him much. Of the money left over from panhandling he gives some to a woman who allows him to shower, wash his clothes and occasionally sleep in her home. Whatever is left goes to cigarettes and beer.
Of those sleeping on sidewalks and in the woods, it appeared that alcohol was the preferred vice. On street corners, a far more lethal substance is king: heroin.
"If someone asks for a Sharpie I know what they're about to do with it," said Jason Mitchell of Vigilant Hope. "They're making a sign. I also know those are the people who do struggle with opiate addiction."
No exact statistics exist, but from experience, panhandler's estimate that about 10 percent of flying a sign are "legit" homeless, about 20 percent are dealing with alcoholism and a staggering 70 percent are dealing with drug addiction.
"Anybody I talk to, I'm just curious, I ask what's your DOC (drug of choice) and nine times out of ten it's heroin,' said Elizabeth King. "When you're hooked on it you've got to have some way to get it every day."
WPD Narcotics Detectives saw King panhandling then driving off with her husband. The couple turned into the Hillcrest neighborhood and were observed buying heroin. When their vehicle was stopped dope and paraphernalia were found.
At the time, she was within weeks of her due date but claimed she was buying it for her husband, not her.
"DSS knows about it now. They've given me an ultimatum that I go to residential treatment or the baby goes to foster care when it's born," she said.
"You start to see the same group of people over and over again at the same spots," said Narcotics Detective Allison Jahreis. "When you see people there as long as they've been there I said there's something else up. It's not just somebody that's out of gas or missed a meal and is hungry and it's a one or two time thing. That's not what it was."
It's easy to brush off panhandling as a petty crime, not worth law enforcement's full attention. But the Narcotics Unit sees a reason for concern.
"This city has a heroin epidemic," said Jahreis. "We're trying to fix it on all levels so when you give, you are essentially enabling their situation."
In situations circled around addiction, the cycle of homelessness is usually classified by depleted bank accounts, selling off personal items and then lost homes and rentals. That's a different path to poverty than a down economy that puts a home in foreclosure after layoffs.
"If I could pawn and sell it, it was gone," panhandler James Clark admitted. "Had a $253,000 house and we sold it. I took what was my part of it and it was gone, up my arm. It's not fun."
During the days of heavy use, Clark would make the decision between spending the money he made panhandling on a hotel room or on a few more bags of heroin. The dope always won. After all, he could always sleep in his car.
Before drugs, Clark served in the Army where he was hit in the leg with two bullets. In unrelated incidents, he also hurt is back. He was discharged and moved back to Wilmington where he worked on an ambulance and his wife as a nurse.
Clark began pain management and so began his addiction. As the strength of his medicine increased so did his dependency. When he was switched to Oxycontin everything changed.
"That was the wrong idea because I was off to the races then," Clark explained. "I was gone. That was it."
Clark tried to get clean on prescribed soboxone. He then moved on to methodone. One day he was unable to get his supply and went into withdrawal. A man he had met offered a saving grace: something stronger.
"A guy introduced me to heroin and that's the one I was like 'WOAH! Where has THIS been all my life!?" Clark said.
Clark flew his first sign in 2012.
At the height of his addiction, he was injecting three bundles a day, about 30 bags.
He was eventually able to get back on methadone and started using his panhandling money to rent a room. He often posts up outside the Whole Foods flying a "Disabled Vet" sign. He claims a lot of the money is used for child support payments.
Micheal Page fought the same addiction as Clark but couldn't bring himself to panhandle. Today he works part time at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition Offices which host Wilmington's syringe exchange program.
Many a panhandler has come through the exchange to hand in their old needles and get a fresh supply.
"There's people all day long that break their own bones so they can go to the doctor and get opiates," Page said. "If you're willing to break your bones to go into the ER to get some pain pills and I've got a marker and a piece of cardboard I'm going to be willing to write whatever I need to write, even if it means parading my kids around with me so I pull on your heart cords. People do that stuff."
Which is why Page warns that putting money out the window is counter active towards the fight against heroin.
"Handing somebody a dollar is literally killing people," he said flatly.