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The truth behind the cardboard signs of Seattle’s panhandlers

"Jeff the chef" is one of the Seattle panhandlers featured in a new documentary that explores their lives, why they beg for money, how long they've been doing it, how much they make and what we should do when we see them along the side of the road. (Photo courtesy Matt Longmire)

You see them on the side of the road in every city in the Northwest.

With a hardened look on their face, they hold cardboard signs that read “Lost my job,” “Need to feed my family,” or “Anything helps.”

Most of us drive by the people panhandling for money.

Local filmmaker Matt Longmire couldn’t.

He spent two years studying the people in Seattle who beg for money.

“If you’re gonna panhandle, you need to swallow your pride,” says one man as he collects spare change and a few bills. “This is my fifth year straight. It was only supposed to be for a couple of months.”

The result is a documentary called Cardboard: Behind the Signs of Seattle’s Panhandlers.

He explores: Who are these people? What do they do with the money? Are they telling the truth with the words they’ve scribbled on cardboard with a black marker?

“They’re lying right now, but then they’re telling the truth. It’s difficult to know if their stories are real,” says Longmire.

Half-truths become a part of the lifestyle for panhandlers. While many seem to honestly be down on their luck, others start to believe what they’ve written on their signs – for example that they’re a veteran because they’ve seen that brings in more money.

For the most part, the panhandlers made between $50 and $60 a day in a good area of Seattle and about $10 in a “not so great” neighborhood, he says. It’s not something they’re getting “rich off of.”

“I guarantee when people hear this they’ll immediately think, ‘Oh no, they’re out there by choice because they’re just lazy,'” Longmire says.

“Yes, there are some people who say it’s easier to sit there with a sign than it is to get a job. But a lot of the people don’t really have an option to get a job if they’ve only got one set of clothes and no place to shower.”

Longmire learned there’s a psychology to sign writing.

Some people find that it works better to be short and sweet with a sign that reads ‘Anything Helps.’

“Others feel that the only way to get someone to connect with them is to tell a whole story. Some of those stories are true, many of them aren’t. You can pretty much assume that you just don’t know,” he says.

The longer stories on cardboard signs hold a driver’s attention a little bit longer. That extra time spent reading a sign often leads a person to connect with the panhandler and makes them more likely to give money.

One question everyone asks Longmire when they hear about his documentary is: What are we supposed to do; should we give money to panhandlers?

The film, which will be shown during the Tacoma Film Festival on Oct. 6 at 3:15 p.m. at the Tacoma Art Museum, doesn’t provide a simple answer.

The experience has changed what Longmire does though. He no longer gives money to panhandlers.

“I make it a point to carry supplies. So, in my bag I’ll have some ponchos or in my car I’ll keep a case of water,” he says. “Or, if I don’t have anything with me I’ll just walk up and I will shake their hand and I’ll say how’s your day going? I will connect with them in a way other than giving a dollar.”

The documentary “Cardboard” will be shown during the Tacoma Film Festival on October 6th at 3:15 PM at the Tacoma Art Museum. Purchase tickets here.

Longmire also wants to thank the 97.3 KIRO FM listener who made the film possible after hearing the first interview I did with him in the summer of 2011.

The interview aired a day before an online fundraising effort was scheduled to end. An individual who heard about Longmire’s project donated the $4,000 he needed to begin work on the documentary.

He doesn’t know who that person was and neither do I.

There is a certain irony to funding a project about panhandling through a Kickstarter campaign, which is basically online begging.


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