In 2014 many of the passersby who saw this pregnant woman standing outside a shopping center in San Diego, California, no doubt delved deep into their pockets to help her out. They didn’t know, however, that she was harboring an awful secret.
Melissa Smith had often noticed this panhandler at the Eastlake Plaza center. After all, the unidentified woman was with her child and carried a cardboard sign pleading for help. “I felt bad, there’s a pregnant lady with a little boy and is down on her luck,” Smith told Oklahoma news channel KFOR-TV in 2014. “The dad comes out on the weekends and stands with them.”
Sadly, such sights are not uncommon across the United States. And contrary to some misconceptions, the majority of panhandlers obtain no more than $25 per day, according to a 2013 survey. The same study also revealed that 94 percent of panhandlers spent donated cash on food despite the fact that as many as three out of ten are blighted by drug or alcohol addictions.
However, some panhandlers have reportedly earned a far higher amount. In 2014, for example, a Sacramento couple were found by police to have made more than $350 in just two hours. In 2012, too, an Oklahoma panhandler reportedly told a police officer that he raked in as much as $60,000 over the course of a year.
But a 2001 study found that seven out of ten panhandlers in the city of Toronto would still prefer to do minimum-wage work over begging on the street. Researchers concluded that it was very rare for panhandlers to earn a huge amount and that the median income from panhandling was $300 per month.
So it’s easy to imagine Melissa Smith’s surprise when, as she was putting gas into her car, she spotted the pregnant panhandler and her partner getting into a Mercedes-Benz. “I thought, ‘Wow, a Mercedes-Benz?’” she said.
Adding to Smith’s astonishment, the couple were laughing and counting their cash, she claimed. “Lo and behold, they were in front of us, and here they are counting money, laughing. Their little boy is not in a car seat or seat belt. He’s all the way in the front seat with them,” she added.
Smith then saw the pair driving to another location, parking up their Mercedes and resuming panhandling on the street. “She sits there with the sign. He goes and parks the Mercedes. And they put up the sign and in five minutes, here she is getting money from all these people,” Smith said. But what happened next shocked her even more.
Smith decided to take some photographs of the woman. However, the panhandler noticed her and saw what she was up to. “Next thing I know, she picks up this big boulder… goes over her head, I don’t know if pregnant people can do that, but it was pretty big over her head and coming at me with this rock,” she said.
Police were called, but the woman had already fled the scene. “She grabs her little boy and takes off through the middle of the parking lot,” Smith said. However, KGTV news reporter Emily Valdez subsequently received a tip that the woman had been spotted at a different location in San Diego.
The tip came from San Diego resident, Rebecca Smith, who recognized the woman from the TV report on Melissa Smith’s encounter. This time, as well as being accompanied by her male companion, the panhandler was holding a baby in her arms. “They didn’t say very much. He was holding the sign,” Rebecca Smith told KGTV.
Valdez approached the woman and asked her if she was in the photograph supplied by Melissa Smith. “Is this you begging on the street?” asked Valdez, showing her the photograph. “No speak English,” the woman replied.
The reporter then went on to question the woman’s partner in Spanish about the Mercedes car. However, the man denied any knowledge of the vehicle. The couple then spoke to each other in another language and fled the scene.
When Valdez caught up with the pair again, they sped off in a black minivan. The Mercedes was nowhere to be seen on this occasion, and the children were not put into car seats for the trip. “I just find it sad,” Rebecca Smith commented. “Sad that people would go to this extreme.”
KGTV later commissioned an expert in facial recognition. He found an 80 percent match between the earlier photographs of the Mercedes-driving panhandlers and the couple tracked down by Valdez.
Since the incidents, the clip of the panhandlers in their alleged Mercedes has been viewed more than six million times on YouTube, generating many angry responses. “That just gives the people who are actually in need of money a bad rep,” wrote one viewer. “That makes it so hard for people who truly need it. Scumbags,” another added.
In a further intriguing twist, it emerged that the license-plate number on the Mercedes was registered to a woman with an address at a nearby apartment complex. Monthly rents at the building were in the region of around $2,500. However, neighbors told reporters that the couple had moved.
The trail has since gone cold, and the phony panhandlers seem to have escaped having to answer for their actions. Sadly, cases such as these create problems for those who are genuinely forced into panhandling. In early 2016, for instance, a nationwide snapshot of homelessness in the United States found that almost 550,000 people were on the streets across the country. Almost 200,000 of those were in families, while more than 35,000 were unaccompanied youngsters.
Shockingly, almost 40,000 army veterans were also found to be sleeping rough. And while overall homelessness has declined by around 15 percent since 2007, it’s still sad that there seem to be unscrupulous people out there who are willing to exploit the desperate situation of others for the sake of a few bucks.