You've probably walked by them, or even given money to them, countless times before: young women begging with babies while huddled on the sidewalk, with signs saying their are homeless , jobless, or both. NBC has an excellent report this week about these women—whom they identify as con artists—using babies as part of an ongoing panhandling scheme in the subways and on the streets around Manhattan.
NBC followed at least nine of these women over a month, and are convinced they are working in tandem (even exchanging babies a times) and aren't homeless (they followed all of them back to a building in East New York). They observed them going out to lunches together, shopping, eating ice cream and more. This isn't exactly hard proof that it's a scam, but then there's this: "Social service workers tell the I-Team the women have repeatedly refused shelter and services because they only want cash."
George McDonald, who works with The Doe Fund, a nonprofit that assists the homeless, said the women are using the kids are props: "This is a scam—a business," he said. "It’s a group of women who who trade off the same children. They work in shifts. We have a network of service providers who would help them if they wanted help, which they do not."
There have been "begging rackets" in other cities that have been brought down in recent years, including some in which the children involved were sedated.
Panhandling is not illegal on the streets of NYC (though it is underground in the subway tunnels); there is an obscure law that makes it a misdemeanor to use children to peddle or "pick rags." In theory, cops could arrest the women under that statute, but an NYPD spokesman said that they tend to treat the women on a case-by-case basis. Karen Freedman, who works with the group Lawyers for Children, says the real emphasis should be on the state of the kids: "This is some sort of exploitation at some level," Freedman said. "The question is: Is there actual harm to the child?"
The report comes as the homeless crisis in NYC reached a new high: the city's homeless population climbed up to 67,810 in 2014, about 7% higher than 2013 (there's been a 29 percent spike in homelessness since 2007). It also comes as tensions between the homeless and residents in gentrified neighborhoods has begun getting more and more heated.