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Panhandlers in Denver make an average of $10 per hour, on par with minimum wage. Dogs help, kids not so much.

The most lucrative blocks are near the light-rail, according to a researcher who spent a year observing panhandling as part of University of Colorado Denver's focus on urban social studies

Untwine Arnold, 52, holding a sign, panhandles near Target, one of the few stores left open on Denver's 16th Street Mall on March 18, 2020, as the coronavirus outbreak expands through Colorado. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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Panhandling with children backfires. Dogs, though, rake in the money.

And young men who are on a date are more likely to hand over a five-dollar bill than young men walking the 16th Street Mall alone. 

Those observations were among several noted by researcher Francisco Conejo, a University of Colorado Denver business instructor who spent a year watching panhandlers work the busy, pedestrian-friendly shopping area. 

Conejo observed 360 panhandlers from afar for 15 minutes each, taking notes about everything from the weather to the technique to the ages of the panhandler and the passersby. On average, the people asking for money along 16th Street brought in about $10 per hour — which, accounting for the fact they don’t pay taxes on that income — works out to close to Colorado’s minimum wage, which is $12 per hour. 

The research comes from the university’s “CityCenter” program, which promotes the study of the urban environment that surrounds the campus in downtown Denver. The university has put renewed focus on social and economic research in its own neighborhood, from gentrification to transportation to homelessness. 

Conejo conducted his observations in 2018 (not in the current environment in which the new coronavirus has emptied downtown streets).

MORE: Homeless shelters and health officials scramble for a plan as coronavirus spreads in Colorado

Per university rules, he was not allowed to interact or talk to panhandlers during his study. Instead, he often watched from several feet away or even from the other side of the street, trying to get within hearing and seeing distance. It was easy to tell if people were handing over coins, but he could not always tell the denomination of bills (he used a formula to determine the average hourly earnings based on what he could see and a 20% margin of error). 

Conejo considers it marketing research, but instead of studying the relationship between corporations and consumers, he studied an unregulated labor market on the 16th Street Mall, which is typically packed with workers on weekdays and tourists on the weekends. 

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Conejo, who has studied in Costa Rica and New Zealand, wished he could have talked to his research subjects but the university has rules about involving vulnerable populations in research projects. He lives in downtown Denver, not far from CU-Denver. “I walk down 16th Street quite a bit,” he said. “It just occurred to me, ‘Why are there so many panhandlers operating at any given time?”

He also found:

  • Panhandlers who had children with them were often lectured instead of given money. “People scolded the panhandlers, said they were being irresponsible and teaching their kids to beg instead of work,” Conejo said. But those who had dogs got more money, on average, because people often stopped to pet the animals and ask their names. 
  • Senior citizens received more money, although the average age of panhandlers on the mall was about 25 to 30, according to Conejo’s estimates. “Presumably, people felt bad for a senior living on the street and having to beg,” Conejo said. Women also tended to receive more money.
  • Most panhandlers were white, which was an overrepresentation of that portion of the population. While about 30% of Denver’s population is Latino, 30% of panhandlers are not, Conejo noted. “These are young, male caucusians that move on trains and hitch rides and go from city to city,” he said. “That is their lifestyle, and Denver is a central hub.”
  • Most people who gave panhandlers money handed them a dollar bill or a five-dollar bill, not coins. The “hot spots” were near the light-rail stations.
  • Cold weather slows down panhandling, but panhandlers keep operating even on the hottest of summer days. Spring and fall days when the weather was moderate were the most lucrative days of the year, Conejo observed. 
  • While panhandlers simply ask for money or hold up signs on the weekdays, the business transforms toward entertainment on the weekends — think mimes, guitar players, drumming. 

Conejo’s research was awarded an “urban engaged scholar” prize from CU-Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell, who said the research program is improving lives in the community. “We want to bring our knowledge to the city in ways that make it much more accessible, and frankly much more relevant than it has been before,” she said in a statement. 

Panhandling has not been restricted in Denver since 2015, when the city rolled back ordinances that had prohibited the solicitation of handouts near ATMs, on restaurant patios, inside trains and buses, and after dark. 

Whether cities can prohibit panhandling has been an ongoing battle for decades involving the American Civil Liberties Union, municipalities and the courts.