Homeless in Iowa City: Business on the streets

Story by Sherri Healy

Information gathered by Sherri Healy and Nawaar Farooq

His “shift” starts at 10:30 p.m. and ends at 2:30 a.m. The only tools he needs are his cardboard squares, a Sharpie, some Hawkeye vodka and a collecting bucket. And in those four hours, he makes an average of $100.00 each night. I’ve never seen a business model quite like it before. John, aka the Traveling Man, is a nocturnal homeless business man.

“I hate homeless people. They are all imbalanced,” John said. “They will steal, they will hurt you. I don’t want to get involved with bad stuff. Yeah, my signs are vulgar. At least I’m doing something legal.”

As a current Iowa City resident John, 52, panhandles the streets of downtown Iowa City as his only source of income.

“This is a business,” he said.

Panhandling as a business

John, the Traveling Man, and one of his signs. Photo by Nawaar Farooq.

As John sipped away at the vodka concealed in an Aquafina water bottle, he explained to me the strategies of panhandling. According to John, the best time to get money from people is between 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. in front of the Clinton Street Pancheros in downtown Iowa City because of the abundance of drunken students who are willing to donate.

One unique aspect of John’s business model is his use of vulgar signs. Ranging from signs that say “Fuck you, I’m very sexy” to absolutely nothing at all, the public reaction to his signs brings in the majority of his revenue. “My favorite sign is ‘fuck you,’ because it works,” John explained.

The largest contribution he had ever received was a one hundred dollar bill. “The sign I got the hundred dollar bill from was a blank sign. I had a piece of card board that said absolutely nothing on it. And a guy walked by and said ‘What’s your fucking story?’ and he peels out a hundred dollar bill and he throws it in my cup and says ‘You know what? I don’t even want to you know your story, goodbye’ and I got that hundred dollar bill, that was crazy.”

Why Iowa City?

There are many reasons why homeless people come to Iowa City, according to the Iowa City Housing Information. They come for:

  1. Expectation of higher wages
  2. Need for medical attention from one of the three Iowa City hospitals
  3. Excellent social services
  4. Attractive community with recreational opportunities
  5. The University of Iowa

Although Iowa City is his current place of residence, the Traveling Man gets his name for a reason. John has panhandled in cities across the United States in Vermont, Iowa and Indiana.

“I went to fucking Ames. I hustled the fuck out of those people. Oh my god, I was making over a hundred dollars a night,” John said. “And I felt guilty, and I’m like, I don’t want to rape these people like this; this is crazy. Well I mean, I’m still doing it. And I’m going to continue to do it until they tell me to stop.”

The bigger issue

Averaging about $200.00 in earnings in one weekend, John puts a good portion of his donations back into the economy by buying cigarettes, food, drugs and alcohol.

“I’m gonna have some fun out here tonight. I’m pretty fucking stoned. I smoked some good weed. And I’m drinking some good vodka. I’m just having fun out here right now,” John said while holding his sign up.

This poses as a bigger issue to those actively involved with the homeless of Iowa City.

“The issue of pan handling creates discomfort; people don’t know how to respond often times,” Christina Canganelli, Executive Director of the Iowa City Shelter House said. “And it can become a rather charged situation because the bottom line is that people don’t want to be told that by giving a charitable gift to somebody, all they are doing is creating and feeding a problem. When I give that dollar or five dollars to that person more often than not I am feeding their addiction.”

Proposed Panhandling Solution

A proposed solution to stop funding homeless people’s addictions while still giving donations is in the works. According to Connie Champion, Campaign chair for Opening Doors Capital Campaign Committee, old parking meters may be used to collect money for those in need to reduce panhandling. Although the plan is still in the discussion stage, the idea behind it would be to put old parking meters throughout the Pedestrian Mall in Downtown Iowa City. Ideally, by doing this, people can donate their change to many individuals who would benefit from it, not just one person.

“A lot of them are not even homeless and a lot of them don’t even really need the money,” Champion added.

But according to John, if this is implemented, panhandling will still continue. “Oh they aren’t going to do that. Even if they do, it’s all bullshit anyway. Motherfuckers are going to still come out here and do the same god damn shit,” John said.

“People think that what I’m doing is like some screwed up shit,” John added. “Oh really? They’ve got bars and clubs all over this town that are just raping people. You know, ten dollar cover charge, five dollar a drink. You know, my god, they are going to spend a hundred dollars or more buying those drinks, so how am I fucking bad? I’m not, I’m not raping you. In fact, I’m giving you a chance here. I’m letting you read my sign and if you dig it and you want to give me some money, cool, if not you can walk on. You can’t do that in a bar. You go into a bar you’re hooked. I’m taking what money they are going to spend anyway in a fucking bar.”

To read more about homelessness in Iowa City and the Shelter House check out Iowa City Shelter House: A place to call home and Homelessness in Iowa City: An insider’s perspective.


Iowa City Shelter House: A place to call home

Story by Sherri Healy

He’s spent 45 years doing it wrong. And now he’s going to spend the next 90 days doing it right.

Donald Kevin Marshall, 49, is currently an Iowa City Shelter House resident with a scarring past who’s trying to heal his wounds.

“I’ve been shot, stabbed, broken up, hooked up, shook up, messed up,” Marshall said. “If you rewind the tape and look back on what I’ve been through to get to where I’m at, it’s only through the mercy and grace of God that I’m still here alive.”


Marshall’s conversion from drug addict, alcoholic, hustler, and con artist to a born again Christian was the greatest prayer ever answered. According to Marshall, finding God was the awakening he needed to get his life back together. “I was shattered like a cup,” Marshall explained. “But God put me back together again.”


Marshall’s life story holds credence that there’s beauty in the breakdown; his dark past has become a catalyst for change.

“I’ve manipulated people, I’ve conned people, I’ve stole from people, I’ve lied to people, and I’ve hurt people. It’s sad that I look back at my life like this; it’s not a life that I brag on, it’s hurtful,” Marshall said. “I’m crying in the inside now as I speak to you, because it’s not that I didn’t know, I did know, it’s just that I refused to do so.”

Today he is trying his hardest to get his life back on track.

Finding a home without a family

According to Marshall, the consistent marital and alcohol abuse problems he and his wife were facing caused her to kick him out of their house and into the streets.

Marshall learned of the Iowa City Shelter House from a friend and has been residing and rebuilding his life there for the past two weeks. And in those two weeks he hasn’t had one drop of alcohol, an accomplishment he is thankful for.

“This shelter here, thank God for it,” Marshall said.

Shelter Life

Marshall’s life is beginning to come together again through the Shelter House. His day starts out by reading the bible and praying every morning. Next on his agenda is to build his resume and apply for jobs in person and online. His counselor at the Shelter House even set him up with his own email address to keep in contact with employers.

“The shelter has really, really been helping me to get back on track with the way of life,” Marshall added.

He also receives services from the shelter house. According to Opening Doors, The Campaign for Shelter House pamphlet, for a maximum of 90 days, all shelter residents are provided with:

  • Breakfast and nightly meal
  • Shower and laundry facilities
  • Mailing address
  • Phone and message service

Non-residents are provided with some of the same necessities through the drop in center that operates daily from 5:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. The drop in center is open and available to all in need. Former clients, homeless people not staying at the shelter and other low-income citizens utilize the drop in center. The drop in center provides:

  • Laundry and shower facilities
  • Clothing and toiletry donations
  • Evening meals
  • A mailing address to receive mail
  • Telephone usage
  • Place to pick up phone messages
  • Access to Shelter House staff

“This place here , the Shelter House, has helped me since I’ve been here to get started back on track and back on the world to be a productive citizen. This is like a rest stop; this aint’ for you to be here permanent and get relaxed and take advantage of it,” Marshall explained. “This is for you to get in and get out. And while you’re here, they are willing to help you if you’re willing to help yourself. They give you 90 days. If you ain’t figured it out or worked it out by 90 days, you ain’t want to. There’s no excuse.”

Future Plans

One short-term plan that Marshall wants to accomplish is getting a steady job so he can get back on his feet and not have to rely on the Shelter House for his basic needs.

“I’m a very good worker and I take my job serious. And really, I take life serious. Cause I’m at the age of 49, I’ll be 50; that’s half a century,” Marshall explained. “It’s time for me to build me a foundation and stand strong as a man.”

Marshall would also like to go back to school and continue his education. He would like to attend business classes at Kirkwood Community College in the near future. But ultimately, Marshall wants to become a Deacon in the church.

With his goals in mind, he’s working towards them on a day by day basis. “I try to achieve something every day,” Marshall said.

But for right now he’s just living life one day at a time.

“I’ve just been searching, trying to find myself,” Marshall added.

To read more about homelessness in Iowa City and the Shelter House check out Homeless in Iowa City: Business on the streets and Homelessness in Iowa City: An insider’s perspective.

Homelessness in Iowa City: An insider’s perspective

Story by Sherri Healy

The following views and opinions about homelessness in Iowa City are from those who deal with it directly on a daily basis.

John, the Traveling Man

John, aka the Traveling Man, featured in the article Homeless in Iowa City: Business on the streets, has a negative view of homelessness. Being a homeless man who panhandles for a living, John recognizes the difference between his practices and the negative connotation that many homeless people get.

“I fucking hate homeless people,” John said. “Some of them will hurt people to get what they want. And me, well I just sit out here with my signs and if you want to give me some change, cool, if not, that’s fine too.”

Donald Kevin Marshall

Donald Kevin Marshall, featured in the article Iowa City Shelter House: A place to call home, is a current Iowa City Shelter House resident who’s trying to rebuild his shattered life. As a new member to the homeless community, Marshall has a neutral opinion about homelessness.

“There’s too many opportunities and doors opened for a person to be homeless. People shouldn’t look down on homeless people,” Marshall said.

Marshall’s opinion on panhandling, on the other hand, is more direct.

“I don’t really necessarily disagree with panhandling. A closed mouth can’t get fed. But what are the purposes and the reasons for you asking for this money? Is it actually to get something to eat or to get something to drink? But to literally stand out there every day with alcohol on your breath, smellin’, and you are asking for something that you don’t really need, that’s unnecessary,” Marshall explained. “When they’re down town and they got the signs, but they are physical and able to work, why not work?”

Christina Canganelli

Christina is the Executive Director of the Iowa City Shelter House. She deals with homeless people on a daily basis and acknowledges the harsh reality of the perceptions of homelessness.

“We like that quick fix, almost fast-food mentality. This isn’t a quick fix story. You don’t necessarily see in a short time the impact or the change. It’s not sexy. It’s not often that people are going to take the time to roll their sleeves up and get into this and understand the context,” Canganelli said. “It’s one thing to be able to say that a guy is living under a bridge and homeless and he looks like a drunk. It’s another thing to understand what was the stuff that happened before that would lead that person to choose that life?”

To read more about homelessness in Iowa City and the Shelter House check out Iowa City Shelter House: A place to call home and Homeless in Iowa City: Business on the streets.

Get out of my head!

One of the disadvantages of working retail is having to listen to the same music over and over again on a daily basis.

The result=constant songs getting stuck in my head.

Usually, I don’t mind when I hear a new song that I like and it gets stuck in my head. But when it’s a song that you really don’t care for but hear yourself singing it in the shower, that’s a whole different story.

My company tends to be trendy with not only their clothing but their music choice as well. And most of the CD’s they send us to play are pretty decent, but then there are some that are questionable. Those are the songs that I usually dislike and subsequently the ones that get over played and stuck in my head.

This song is always stuck in my head after finishing a shift!

Happy shopping,


¡Hablo Español!

The other day at work I had my first solely Spanish-speaking customer. It was possibly the coolest experience I’ve had while working.

When you learn how to say “¿Que talla necesitas?” or “¿En que puede sevirle?” in Spanish class, you never think you will ever use it in real life. But I definitely did.

I was nervous, too. I hadn’t spoken Spanish on a regular basis for about a year so I was a bit rusty; I got my message across none-the-less.

It was just a really unique experience to be able to communicate with someone who another co-worker might not have been able to.

Felices compras,


Last time I checked, carpet’s not cement

Some intelligent person decided to spit their gum out on the carpet of my store tonight. And I’m sure the sticky saliva residue left on the carpet isn’t sanitary.

Yeah, thanks for that.

Happy shopping,


Coffee Please?!

One of the perks of being in management, is picking up the pieces when things fall apart.

With a shift in staff the last few weeks, our team has become very short-staffed. The result: me working nearly 40 hours a week to help out. Balancing being a full-time student with working full-time management hours while still tying to have an existing social life has been a challenge. Let’s just say life as I know it the last few weeks has been on a strict schedule with very little sleep.

Even though I’m working crazy hours and finals are coming up, I’ve felt less stress than I have felt in the last five months. It’s crazy how much impact a positive working environment can have on the rest of your life.

Everything is finally falling into place perfectly. All we really needed was a little glue to hold us together. (OK, I’m done being sappy)

Happy Shopping,