How panhandlers use free credit cards

Early afternoon    on Queen Street West. A young man with a short orange Mohawk haircut and a Superman tattoo on his left shoulder sat alone on the sidewalk, a skateboard at his side. A song by Michelle Shocked comes to mind, in which she asks: “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker?”

Tight    .

His panhandling sign read: “Too ugly to prostitute. Spare some change.”

I asked him what he needed.

“Food would be nice.”

“Can I trust you with this?” I said, handing him a $50 card and telling him to buy what he needs, but that I need it back when he was done. He nodded and scrambled to his feet. He said he would be back in a half-hour.

He came back right on time, slurping from a large McDonald’s soft drink cup — root beer — and with sweat on his brow. He wanted to have pork and rice from a Vietnamese noodle joint on Spadina but they wouldn’t take the card. So, he scrambled to McDonald’s. Lunch was a double quarter-pounder with cheese.

He handed over the gift card, having spent $8.69.

His name is Jason. He’s 28, has brown eyes, a wide smile and good teeth. He has been on and off the streets of Toronto since he was 14. He grew up in Northern Ontario. His mother, he said, is a drinker and his dad died last year.

Now, he is homeless, living with friends or at a “secret spot” on the streets, but is waiting on an apartment. “I just got a POA for welfare,” he said. That’s a promise of address. He wants to get his driver’s licence and a job as a courier.

On a good day, he takes in $40 to $50 through panhandling, most of which he spends on communal food for friends. Of his most effective panning signs: “Like Obama, I like change,” and “Smile if you masturbate. Spare change if you like it.” He carries his belongings in a knapsack — just a bit of clothing and toiletries.

I handed the $50 card back to Jason to spend the rest as he likes. We shook hands and he went back to his spot on Queen.

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