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 of the most unique aspects 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

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 ped 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 Nawaar Farooq’s story, The Shelter House: A Home for the Homeless in Iowa City.

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11 responses to “Homeless in Iowa City: Business on the streets

  1. I am so impressed, Sherri! Absolutely outstanding! xoxoxo Stanner

  2. Ok, seriously, I LOVED this one. But he pisses me off! I work really hard everyday and he is out there getting impaired and being rude all the while taking my money. It is sad.

  3. Amanda McDonell

    Sherri, this is an awesome article! very interesting and original topic! i also appreciate how you include views from a variety of perspectives. i think you will go far in journalism. 🙂

    • Thank you Amanda, that means a lot! I’m glad you enjoyed it, I had a great time researching and writing this piece. John was quite a character; It’s not every day that I get a chance to write about such a unique guy.

  4. I LOVED this man. I’d become his Travelling Woman if I had the chance.

  5. Aww, thanks! He can probably hook me up with some good Aquafina, huh?

  6. By far my favorite! You are a great writer!

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