In need or a scam? Video sparks debate over panhandlers

Image courtesy of VCU CNS

RICHMOND, Va. (VCU CNS) — A video of a woman seeking handouts at an intersection in Henrico County has sparked a national debate over whether panhandlers’ pleas for help can be trusted.

In the Facebook Live video, two men accused Micha Dominguez, 40, of falsely portraying herself as disabled and homeless. The video, titled “Fake Homeless Woman,” has received hundreds of thousands of views on social media. Many people have posted comments accusing Dominguez of scamming potential donors.

“She’s playing on people’s emotions and getting money under false pretenses!” one woman wrote on Facebook.

But advocates for the homeless caution that people shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Although some panhandlers may be scams, it’s impossible to know by looking at someone on the street, Kelly Horne said.

Horne is the executive director at Homeward, a collaborative organization whose mission is to get homeless people off the streets of Richmond by locating affordable housing, reuniting people with their families and assigning case managers to those in need of services.

Asked how the Dominguez video might shape the perception of those already skeptical of giving money to panhandlers, Horne replied, “It’s important to remember not all panhandlers are homeless, and not all homeless people are panhandlers.”

Homeward conducts a census and collects data on the demographics of Richmond’s homeless population twice a year. The January snapshot found that only 20 percent of the city’s homeless reported participating in some form of panhandling.

Horne suggests that if you are uncomfortable giving money, there are other ways to help people on the street. “A good place to start is by simply acknowledging their existence.”

She said offering to buy a bus ticket or meal is just as beneficial. Ultimately, Horne said, if you feel guilty for not giving money to panhandlers, consider supporting local agencies that focus on serving the homeless.

“Panhandlers are very much human like the rest of us,” Horne added. She cited Chris Parker, 33, a homeless man who was panhandling outside the arena in Manchester, England, at the time of the terrorist bombing following an Ariana Grande concert on Monday.

Micha Leigh Diminguez, courtesy of Henrico County Sheriff’s Office

Parker was hailed as a hero after dashing into the arena to help victims of the explosion, which killed 22 people. More than £90,000, the equivalent of $115,000, has been raised through online fundraising websites to support Parker.

The video of Dominguez received the opposite reaction, which was overwhelmingly unsympathetic.

The video, taken on May 21, shows Dominguez holding a sign and asking for money in the median at an intersection on Broad Street. She then returned to her car, a late-model Fiat, in the parking lot of a nearby fast-food restaurant. There, the men shooting the video confronted her. “Stop stealing people’s money,” one man told Dominguez. “You’re not homeless.”

On Monday, in a separate altercation, a motorist told police that Dominguez had thrown three full bottles of Gatorade at a vehicle. As a result, Dominguez was arrested and charged with three felony counts of launching missiles into traffic.

David Stock, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County, has been assigned to prosecute Dominguez. Stock said county ordinances do not prohibit panhandling. However, if the person asking for money is being aggressive or threatening others, it becomes a public safety issue.

Dominguez was being held in the Henrico County Jail. Bail has been set at $3,000. Her preliminary hearing is scheduled for Aug. 10.

Want to help? Here’s how

Visit the Homeless Shelter Directory for information on Richmond organizations serving people who are homeless.

Capital News Service is a student-operated news reporting program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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