Jim Rankin, a reporter for The Toronto Star, found an interesting way to profile some of his city’s neediest citizens. For an article published on Saturday, he handed out prepaid credit cards to several panhandlers, asked them what they thought they would spend the money on, and then followed up online to see what they actually spent.

He didn’t have to choose his profile subjects; they chose him. He walked out into the city with the $50 and $75 credit cards and waited to be asked for some spare change.

I asked them what they needed. A meal at a restaurant, groceries, a new pair of pants, they said. I handed out the cards and asked that they give them back when they’d finished shopping. I either waited at a coffee shop while they shopped or — in the case of those who could not buy what they needed nearby or were reticent about leaving their panhandling post — I said I’d return on another day to pick up the card. That’s when I would reveal that I was a journalist.

Some were unbelieving at first. All were grateful. Some declined the offer. Some who accepted didn’t come back, but those that did had stories to tell.

He got some great stories out of this little experiment. There’s twenty-eight-year-old Jason, with an orange mohawk, who returns the card promptly after spending $8.69 on a cheeseburger and a root beer, and who has been homeless on and off since he ran away from a tough situation at home when he was fourteen. Forty-four-year-old Laurie spent $74.61 on food and cigarettes, is diabetic, and panhandles to collect money for motel rooms and for minutes at an Internet café to Skype with her two daughters in college.

At the bottom of the page, Rankin lists the full results of his project:

How the cards were used

Card 1: $50, handed to Jason. Spends $8.69 at McDonald’s. Returns card.
Card 2: $50, to Mark. Spends $21.64 at The Corner Place restaurant. Doesn’t return. Later spends $15.50 at the LCBO [the Liquor Contro Board of Ontario].
Card 3: $75, to Joanne. Card is stolen. Over two days, $24.95 spent at McDonald’s, $38.35 at the LCBO.
Card 4: $50, to Al. Card unreturned. Balance remains at $50
Card 5: $75. Laurie buys $74.61 worth of food, phone minutes and cigarettes at a gas station convenience store. Returns card.
If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner