New York City has a rising homeless population; it is up nearly 18 percent since 2011. Panhandlers now line city streets, including in Union Square.
"I was married, had a wife, house, car, the whole nine yards, middle class," Paul Santo said, "and lost everything."
Santo said he now lives just off 14th Street. Every day he puts up a sign asking for cash.
"I've got appointments to try and better my life," he said. "Just getting on a train is $2.25."
Amy Moreno, a panhandler, said: "I ask for donations. I want to rent a room to get off the street before winter."
Moreno said she sleeps in Union Square twice a week. The other nights, she stays with friends. She makes bracelets for those who give her donations.
"It goes towards the beads, it goes towards my daily food intake," she said.
Patrick Markee, of the Coalition for the Homeless, said: "A lot of times those folks are a couple of paychecks away from becoming homeless. You might see people panhandling who are still in a precarious housing situation, they might just need those few extra dollars to get by."
Markee said the city is in its worst homeless crisis since the Great Depression. He said every night an estimated 45,000 people sleep in shelters across the city, and more sleep on the streets.
Then there are the panhandlers -- some of whom are homeless, some just looking for extra cash.
"In my neighborhood, the East Village, I see a lot more people sleeping on the streets," Markee said. "I see a lot more people with cardboard signs asking for money. The street homelessness feels more visible."
The New York City legal department said that peaceful panhandling alone is not illegal, but a City law prohibiting aggressive forms of panhandling was passed in 1996.
According to an NYPD spokesperson, beggars can only be arrested if they become aggressive or block traffic.
"Where I am now, a closed business, they're not going to bother me," Santo said. For now, he plans to keep panhandling.
"I'm on the street, but I'm on the list for housing right now," he said. "So hopefully that will go through."