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Originally published January 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 13, 2006 at 8:59 AM

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"Affluent beggars" with three children draw public attention

A couple with three children who say they make $30,000 to $40,000 a year as panhandlers say they are surprised by public attention to their lifestyle.

By The Associated Press

ASHLAND, Ore. — A couple with three children who say they make $30,000 to $40,000 a year as panhandlers say they are surprised by public attention to their lifestyle.

Jason Pancoast and Elizabeth Johnson, who describe themselves as "affluent beggars," say they are able to maintain a well-fed and well-dressed family by living off the streets.

"What has happened is that we're going along with a lifestyle that you couldn't imagine we should have," Pancoast said.

A story in the Sunday edition of the Mail Tribune newspaper in Medford noted the couple sometimes make up to $300 a day and once made $800.

But the report also triggered an outcry from residents. People have yelled at Pancoast and threatened him since the story was published, he said.

Angry e-mails and letters to the Mail Tribune have described the couple as tax evaders, bad role models for their children, "common thieves" and abusers of a food stamp program designed to help people temporarily down on their luck. Pancoast and Johnson said they receive $500 a month in food stamps.

Local radio talk shows have spent airtime taking calls about Pancoast, 34, and Johnson, 30. The couple appeared this week on a Portland radio show, and national media also have expressed interest in interviewing them.

The couple say they use their money to get a safe place for their children to sleep, a warm meal and good clothes.

"We're challenging the stereotype of being a beggar," Johnson said.

But former Ashland mayor and local businessman Alan DeBoer, who gave Johnson $200 before Christmas, said that after learning more about the couple, he believes they are conning people even using their 3-month-old baby as a prop.

DeBoer said he now regrets his generosity toward Johnson and would not give her any more money.

Begging has become so commonplace that you find people at almost every freeway off-ramp, he said.

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"You almost have to make panhandling in Oregon illegal," DeBoer said.

Pancoast, who estimates he and his wife can make $30,000 to $40,000 a year panhandling, said people have certain expectations of the homeless that are vastly different from the way he tries to live.

He said that he and his wife have no assets and are currently living in an Ashland motel. The couple were staying at another local motel, but the manager asked them to leave because of negative publicity, Pancoast said.

The couple say they stay in motels because it is difficult for a family with no consistent income and three children to find housing.

Pancoast, who is outspoken in many of his beliefs, said Ashland is being run more and more by the rich who can't tolerate different lifestyles.

Pointing to the expensive homes on the hills surrounding town, he said, "Is this community theirs or is it ours?"

Patty Claeys, chief executive officer of ACCESS Inc., a housing agency, said she commends the couple for being with their children and taking care of them. But she noted most people have to sacrifice time with their children in order to earn a living.

She said ACCESS could help the couple find a house, but they would have to show some kind of income.

"As long as people live in that kind of lifestyle, what are they teaching their children?" Claeys said.

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