They have to look miserable, they say. Otherwise they'd never make a dime.
And they have to sum up their lives in a few words written on a small piece of cardboard.
These are the first rules of the sign-holders, the panhandlers who post themselves where freeway exit ramps spill onto the surface streets, presenting woeful expressions and wrinkled signs with black-ink pleas etched on them. The words they choose are sometimes different but the requests are always the same — please help.
There are dozens of them out there every day. Some are in the same place so many years they become familiar fixtures on a daily commute. Some have stood outside so long the weather makes them look old before they actually are. Some aren't even homeless. But each has a life story interrupted by one event that sent them plummeting to the bottom, reduced to begging for change on a street corner, exposed to the worst of the weather, and on display to a public that has little sense of the despair that comes from having no place of your own.
Although they work alone, a system of loose codes and laws has evolved among them to govern their workspaces and their interactions with each other, spelling out who gets which corner when, and for how long. Their signs, too, have assumed some uniformity, settling on a few tried-and-tested keywords. "Homeless" and "hungry" are required adjectives. "Veteran" can stir anger among some drivers, particularly those who've served in the military. "God bless" suggests humble belief in a better world. "Will work" draws sometimes bluff-calling offers of a real job.
They'll tell you about their categories for the drivers who roll down their car windows in response to their written appeals — the feeders who hand out food, the drinkers who give them beers, the regulars who show up at the same time every week with the same amount of money to give, and the johns who proposition the women, figuring someone so down on their luck will have sex in a car for a few bucks.
They've classified those who refuse to give too. The drivers who fake a phone call to avoid being engaged. The ones who stare nervously ahead, gripping the wheel. The door lockers. Those who nod and smile but keep the window rolled up. And the cruel ones who play tricks, yell insults or throw things.
The sign-holders are a minority among the city's vagrants and homeless. They're the handful with enough drive and dedication to spend hours standing in one place, making a sales pitch. They could probably succeed at a real job somewhere with such determination. But who's going to hire a depressed guy with three teeth, a felony record and a drinking problem?
So sign-holding becomes their career. And it's a demanding one. They have to be sellers of something that's not a product, isn't a service, and has little benefit for the customer other than perhaps inner satisfaction. They have to sell their misery. And though almost none of them have actual jobs, make no mistake — this is hard work. Here are the stories they tell.
The man rolled down his window and offered a quarter, but when she went to grab it he dropped it on the pavement so she'd have to pick it up.
"See, he was sarcastic," says Carmen Calhoun, 44, grabbing the coin off the asphalt. "I mean, I could hear it in his voice. But you know what? I humbled myself."
Calhoun is working the intersection at Eight Mile and I-75 service drive, on one of the rounded corners created by the looping roads that swirl through here. A traffic light strung above holds cars hostage here for an awkward minute, captive to her imploring presence. She holds a small sign, black marker on cardboard, that reads, "Any help. Homeless. God Bless." All capped off by four periods that she confusingly mistakes for exclamation points.
She's been out for 40 minutes so far today, and hasn't made more than that quarter. Though a woman came by just moments earlier with a small plastic bag full of food — crackers, an orange, a water bottle and a can of Vienna sausages. At least it's something. "We call her the Snack Lady," Calhoun notes.
The spot she works isn't hers alone. You can't claim a corner for yourself. The rule out here is, you make the day's limit and then make way for someone else. "It's customary to where if you make $10, you move," she says. "It's like law. It's the law. But some people be corner hogs. They think they own the corner."
Calhoun comes out sometime after noon and leaves by sunset, because at night she can't see if a window's been rolled down or not, and if you inadvertently approach a rolled-up window drivers think you're aggressive and it scares them. At dusk she wanders into the crumbling State Fair neighborhood just south of Eight Mile Road, and picks an abandoned house to sleep in. She protects herself with a bicycle chain strung across the front door, with little bells hanging on it. If someone comes in, they'll trip over it and her makeshift alarm will go off.
She claims she became homeless seven years ago after losing her family. "I buried three kids," she says. They lived in Flint until the night her oldest son played with matches as the family slept. The home caught fire and three of her four children burned to death inside. Calhoun woke up in time to save one of them, a daughter, who's currently staying with relatives still living in Flint. "She graduated this year," she says.
Calhoun never recovered. She fled to Detroit, worked at a gas station for two years, lost the job, lost her apartment, and was soon wandering the streets of Detroit, the region's home for the homeless.
She complains she can't get her life going again because she doesn't know where to begin. She can't even get any ID because she has no old ID to present for the new one. "I can't prove who I am."
After so much time working a corner, a few trends became clear, she says. The drivers in the beater cars give more than those in the luxury vehicles. Black women give the most money. Old white men give the least. White women and Middle Eastern men fall in the middle of the giving scale.
The most she ever got from one person was $80. "I was so happy, I went shopping," she says, excitedly. "I went and got my little hair done." But it worked against her when she went back out to beg. "Then they were like, 'Oh, you ain't homeless. You got your hair done.'"
After several years on this corner, life has settled into a miserable routine she dreams of escaping despite having no clear way of doing so. "I wanna live life," she says. "I wanna live. I don't wanna be out here, but I don't have no choice. I don't have any other options. I don't even have an identity right now."
A patch of flesh on the palm of his hand bulges outward, discolored and bordered by a thick pink scar.
"A guy tried to take my cell phone and rob me, and he stabbed me," says Anthony Cerello, 55. It was June 9, daytime, and Cerello was holding his sign at his usual spot, where southbound I-75 exits onto Rosa Parks Boulevard on the city's southwest side.
A drunk approached, claimed he had a broken-down car, asked to use Cerello's cell phone and then refused to give it back. When Cerello reached to grab it, the man pulled out a knife and started swinging it. A hand raised in defense provided a quick target for the blade.
"He cut my main artery and both of my tendons were hanging out like this, squirting blood like a hose," the wiry Cerello says, showing his hand. "I put a tourniquet on it and held my arm up and waited for the EMS."
Cerello's life has been defined by such hard luck. "I'm an alcoholic, I'm not going to lie about it," he says. "I'm an alcoholic and a pill head. But you know what, man? You got to be on something here."
He went into the Army young, he claims, and got a heroin habit when he got out. To fund his addiction he started robbing the string of strip clubs that dot Michigan Avenue. He'd hide and wait for each club's manager to lock up for the night and walk out with a bag containing the night's receipts.
He botched his last heist and it earned him 17 years and nine months in prison for armed robbery, plus a charge of kidnapping. "Because I took one manager and threw him in the cooler and locked him in there," he explains. "But I made sure he wasn't going to die or nothing, I turned the cooler all off. I did it 'cause he kept threatening to kill me. He was saying, 'You're lucky I don't have my gun or I'd kill you,' so I said, 'All right, smart ass, get in the cooler. You're gonna wait for me to leave.' I didn't want to take a chance for me to leave and have him start shooting. I was more scared than he was."
Cerello's been out of prison for nine years now, most of it spent homeless. His intersection is highly coveted among panhandlers because there are two casinos nearby, bringing drivers past with pockets full of cash. "A lot of people, they'll give you fives and tens to bring them good luck, and they'll say, 'If I hit I'll come back and give you a $100 bill.'" A woman actually did that once, he says.
Everyone isn't so kind, though. He's had people throw empty bottles at him, hurl pennies at his face, spit at him as they pass or just taunt him by calling him over with the promise of money and speeding away, laughing, once he gets there. Someone even once threw a cup full of urine at him.
But over the holidays, people's generosity shows, and he gets bigger handouts, sometimes even gift cards. And after years here, he's learned who gives and who doesn't. The rule of thumb, he says, echoing the other sign-holders, is the poorer the driver, the more money they're inclined to give.
"The big cars don't give you shit," Cerello says. "It's the little old beat-up cars, people that don't have nothing, that will give you the most money. The rich guys are tighter than the poor people. You would think it would be the other way around, but it's not. That's why I ask God to bless them and their family every day for giving me money, because they're taking away from them and their family by giving me a dollar."
A puffy man known on the streets as Bird wanders up, gray-haired and red-faced, ready to take this spot once Cerello leaves. Cerello is friendly to him, but really doesn't like him.
"He's 60 years old, he's been homeless all his life," he says of Bird. "He's the type you don't want to be around. He's a petty thief, steals. It's not worth that crap. And he's a horrible alcoholic. But I don't judge."
With the workday done, Cerello walks home to a three-story abandoned apartment building just yards from the corner. Once inside, he uses a pipe to jam the door shut behind him.
The first floor has been used as a toilet by squatters, and it stinks. The second floor is smelly and dirty. The third floor, dark and airy, is his home. "See, it smells good up here, right?" he asks.
He sleeps on a mat, next to a pile of neatly folded blankets stacked on a chair. A little battery-powered lantern is hidden under his pillow. Nearby, two other mats have tousled blankets on them, where another homeless man sometimes spends the night with his girlfriend. Cerello points to a sheet of plaster that dangles from the ceiling, where the rain caved it in the other night. And that hole's only going to get bigger.
He's got no plans to get off the corner, no dreams of a better life someday, no backup home for a building that lets the rain inside.
"It's hard to say because I don't look at it like that," he says. "I don't make plans if I had this or I had that. I don't know if I'll ever have this or that. I live day by day. I have hope, but I don't rely on hope. I rely on surviving. I got to eat every day, I got to wash. It's hard, man. But I like it. I challenge myself, and it makes me strong."
The traffic signal turns red, and yet again there's not a single car stopped behind it.
Cason Pointer, 44, has been sign-holding since morning, but has little to show for it. He has nothing to sit on, so he's been standing here the whole time on a Saturday morning. "It's tiresome," he says. His face is weary, resigned. "It's more work than people think it is."
During the workweek, the I-10 exit ramp at Howard traps hundreds of commuters at a stoplight for an unwanted morning sales pitch from Pointer. But downtown Detroit is a Monday-through-Friday place, and on weekends you can go hours at this spot without getting so much as a dollar from an occasional driver.
Some people are simply unable to handle the pain that life throws at them, and they drown it with a bottle or puff it away with a pipe. A few go too far and lose everything. Pointer was one of them.
A few years ago, he was married, working as a roofer, about to buy a house, when his wife left him and he turned to the bottle. "I just started drinking and lost it," he says through broken and missing teeth. Then he laughs. "Well, I used to drink a lot before then too."
A downward spiral later, and he lives in downtown Detroit, with a doorway for a bed and an exit ramp for a workplace. He stashes his blankets for the day with a guy who runs the booth in a nearby parking lot. And somewhere in the city, he has an ex-wife and two sons, 15 and 17.
Pointer tried staying with his mother for a while to get off the streets, but that went bad. "That shit don't last long," he says. "If you ain't got nothing to give to a motherfucker, they complain about you eating they food, you hear them talking about you on the phone. I tried that already. I said, fuck it, I'm gonna stay out here."
Begging on the street is brutal in the heat, but bitter in the winter, he says. Last year, he got frostbite in his toes. He walked to an emergency room, didn't think the pain medication they offered was good enough, stormed out and returned to the corner. But the toes got worse and he had to go back.
"It got infected so bad they had to cut it," he says. "I lost three toes." They didn't even put him under, he claims. "No, honestly, they did it right there in the bed. They just numbed the foot. I guess if you ain't got no insurance that's what they do."
Because his spot has such slow weekends, he doesn't face much competition for it. So after four years here, Pointer has declared it his own, a bold breach of etiquette among the sign-holders. "I had a problem once with one guy," he says. "I mean, he was here before I got here one day and he didn't want to leave. I had to rough him up a little bit." The interloper didn't return.
He explains a hobbling fact of life echoed by the other sign-holders — if you take care of yourself, if you look too good, handouts will dry up.
"You can't be clean-shaved or nothing like that, 'cause if you clean-shaved they figure you ain't homeless. They got churches around here that'll cut your hair and give you stuff, but you get a haircut and a trim and stuff, you come out here you won't get no money. I did it once, and you know, they tell you, 'You ain't homeless, you too clean.' I even had cops tell me that."
He looks himself up and down — bushy beard, dirty clothes, bad teeth, and laughs. "You gotta look homeless," he says. "You gotta look all raggely-like in the face. You can't have on no clean clothes."
He doesn't think too much now about getting cleaned up, or getting off the corner, or getting a job. Only one thing, a single goal, runs though his mind: "I want my family back," he says, looking to the ground. "That's what I would like."
She stands on the green grass of the median, hunched over, as if shielding herself from the cold even though it's a warm night, as she holds a little sign tight to her body.
Bonnie Allen, 52, squints through thick glasses at oncoming eastbound traffic on Warren Avenue where it crosses the I-75 service drive. She's the image of timidity.
This is her usual corner, but she won't defend it if challenged for it. "I don't call this my spot because I don't own it," she says. "You'll be up here fighting and stuff if somebody tries to claim it. If somebody else comes along, I'll leave. They can have it."
The cooperative rules that regulate relationships at other corners don't work in favor of someone as docile as Allen. She regularly gets challenged by more aggressive panhandlers.
Like when she came up here around noon today and had to walk away after she spotted someone in her place. She just waited them out nearby, watching her spot with a dejected face, which isn't far from her usual expression. But once it opened up and she walked over with her piece of cardboard, another panhandler arrived and rudely displaced Allen, sign-blocking her. Allen walked away again and waited.
"I'm not going to be arguing about it, 'cause I can't," she says. "I'm just not gonna get in trouble up here, or I won't be up here at all. I just leave, you know?"
That same vulnerability draws offers normally directed at street hookers. "It ain't happened that much, but it's happened," she says. "I ain't doing that; that's why I'm out here doing this, not to do no shit like that. I ain't never been into nothing like that. I'll go this way before I go that way."
Allen wound up homeless a few years ago, she says, after she finished a jail sentence and discovered her roommate sister had moved away. She served time after getting caught stealing from a big box store. A friend who worked there would wheel brand-new washers and dryers and refrigerators out to the dock behind the store, where the pair would drive off with them.
This median is a prime spot, because traffic from Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center brings streams of suburbanites past her on their way home. Most days she'll work until she gets about $25, then she'll sometimes rent a room at a little hotel over on St. Aubin, the kind of dumpy flophouse that caters to transients.
But it's better than the homeless shelters in the neighborhood, she notes. Especially for someone unable to stand up for herself in line or hustle to claim a seat.
"It's a big hassle. You got your rules that you got to follow, you got a lot of people around you and everybody's not the same, everybody's not friendly and don't know how to get along and stuff like that, so I don't care for going there that often."
Her timidity both helps and hurts, providing an easy target for bullies but drawing sympathy from those who might not normally be inclined to give money to a street person begging on the corner. But even someone as harmless as her isn't immune to the occasional mean-spirited driver.
"Once in awhile they'll say stuff, mean stuff to you, but I don't worry about no words," she says. "I laugh it off. There are all kind of people that do crazy stuff. But then again, there's people out here that treat you better than people you know."
He has a home. And a job. Plus he's young and fit. But he's begging on the corner.
Michael Shea, 41, doesn't claim to be homeless. Just broke. "Hungry. Please help. Will work." is all that's written on his sign. He says he's proud of its honesty. "Now you have guys who say 'homeless' or this or that, their signs are bullshit," he says.
He's sitting on a low plastic crate on a muddy patch at the top of the Cadieux exit of westbound I-94, a spot he's worked for four years.
During that same time he's also worked as a landscaper and a plumber, and has done some construction work and worksite cleanup. Usually they're one-day jobs he gets when a truck or a van pulls up to his spot and offers him $10 an hour to come with them and do manual labor somewhere. He's had enough of that business lately that this is his first stint here in a while. "In fact, usually I'm booked up for like two or three days, but the work just fell off this last week or so," he says.
He lives with two roommates in a nearby house, one of whom is a sign-holder too. For $10 a day, Shea has his own room there. "It's all right," he says. "We all get along. Nobody steals anything."
Unlike some other corners around town, this one's a free-for-all, and he can't get off his squat little plastic seat because several other sign-holders are loitering nearby, waiting to snatch the spot if he so much as steps away for a second.
"We get along, but we get in arguments sometimes," Shea says, pointing to the hovering panhandlers. "We pretty much do a couple of hours. We don't get too greedy. Everybody needs a little help, you know what I mean? But that's why I can't get up right now, 'cause they're all waiting for me." Once he gets $25 or so, he leaves for the day. But for him, getting it is a struggle.
"I look too clean," he explains. "My teeth are too white. I'm young." Few things anger drivers more than a seemingly able-bodied beggar. He's had doughnuts hurled at him. Pennies too. "I guess the people that got the cars and the money, they've worked for it and they don't take too kindly to people sitting here begging."
But this spot is so high-volume that he can get what he needs by the end of the day, and he's even been graced by a visit from a $100 driver. Only once, though. "It was a colored kid," he says. "It was the holidays."
Unlike almost all the others out here wielding their shredded little signs, he's one of the few who has a real home to go to at night, and real jobs he can work. But he doesn't make much at those jobs, and some days there are no paychecks. Working this spot ensures that he stays above the line that separates people like him from the others on the corner whose home is outside.
A man in a truck gets stopped at the red light. He looks at Shea and rolls his window down. "You want to work?" he asks. "Yes I do," Shea replies. The man says he'll be back for him later.
It's hard to know what moves drivers to give to one panhandler and not another. It can be a well-crafted sign. Or a pained expression. But nothing draws more sympathy than a dog without a home.
Pudge the dog is homeless because his owner is homeless. The 5-year-old chocolate lab stays with Tim Taylor wherever he goes — the corner where he begs, the bridge under which he sleeps, the party stores where he buys his meals. And the sight of this furry, gentle companion draws scores of well-wishers.
"They really look after the dog," says the 55-year-old Taylor, chuckling. He's sitting on an overturned milk crate set on a grass-and-concrete island where I-94's Livernois exit spills into Michigan Avenue on the city's southwest side. "The dog gets better treatment, better food and everything than I do."
Taylor grew up and lived in Belleville, where he had a home on a lake surrounded by the woods. He was a journeyman roofer for years who breathed so many asbestos fibers that he had to stop working. A lawsuit is still pending, he claims. "It got so bad I'd have to hit an inhaler three times to get up a ladder," he says. "Took me about three years after I was off the roof to where I could actually breathe halfway decently."
Then things got worse. "My mom died," he says. That was eight years ago. "I just started drinking a lot." He drank himself out of a job and a home and into a life of begging on the streets of Detroit. "I go from making $40 an hour to don't make that in a day," he says.
His first few months in Detroit were spent sleeping in a grove of trees that skirt the bridge along the side of the freeway he now sits next to. From there he moved to an abandoned warehouse across the street, where he stayed for four years until it recently got demolished. Now he sleeps under a bridge.
Taylor found Pudge at the bottom of a pile of old tires in that warehouse. He heard the puppy's whimpers and dug it out, one tire at a time. "Evidently she was the runt," he says. "I fed her with a baby bottle for three, four weeks, then she got healthy and now she's probably one of the smartest dogs around."
The dog draws smiles and donations and more repeat visitors than the scraggly Taylor would ever get on his own. But a couple of years back, a cop took a dislike to Taylor and his dog for some reason. "He come by one day and says, 'I catch you out here again I'm gonna take your dog and put him to sleep,'" Taylor says.
The next time he ran into him the cop kept his word, grabbing the dog, throwing him in the back of a patrol car and driving off, leaving Taylor sitting there with no means to follow him.
Some truckers who know Taylor saw what happened and went to the Humane Society to get the dog back, but couldn't until Taylor paid for a license and vaccinations for Pudge. Soon, regulars who'd come to know the dog saw Taylor, alone and forlorn on the exit ramp, and began a campaign to raise the money for him. A local TV station even did a story on the incident. The money soon started coming in and Pudge the dog got his freedom, rejoining his owner back on the streets.
Nowadays the dog sits patiently most of the day as Taylor holds his sign and waits for the day's money to come, bit by bit. Once in a while, Taylor throws a little rubber ball for Pudge to fetch, which he brings back with a furiously wagging tail.
Like most of the others wielding signs, Taylor insists he wants to get back to a normalized life. Yet like the others, where would he start? He has no address and no family, hasn't held a job in years, hasn't associated with normal people in a long time, and if he tries to clean himself up he can't make money out here anymore. With obstacles like these, it's easier to stay with the routine he's established on the streets than it is to try lifting himself out of it.
"It's hard, man. It's hard. It's a struggle to get back on your feet when you're out here."
So here he sits, just as throughout the city dozens of others are doing the same thing — like the meek woman who's nervously watching her spot, like the ex-con wondering if something will be hurled at him in anger today, like the desperate man who can't stop wondering how he lost a family. All of them with different stories but now living the same life, one stripped so bare it can fit on a small cardboard sign.
Taylor holds his sign up as another driver is forced by the traffic signal to stop next to him. The woman behind the wheel looks at him, looks at the dog, and then looks away, just waiting for the light to release her.