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After Coming Into Money, Kansas City Panhandler Reflects On Big Changes

Bill Krejci

At the end of each year, lots of people look back and take stock. But no one has a 2013 story to tell quite like Billy Ray Harris.

Harris went from panhandling on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., to being a national media sensation after he returned a lost engagement ring that was accidentally dropped in his panhandling cup.

Inspired by Harris’s actions, people from around the world donated money to Harris to help him change his life. Now that things have calmed down a bit, Billy Ray Harris looks back on the year with gratitude and a little bafflement.

“Christmas is coming, and people get a lot more generous. And if you have any chance of making some real money, this is about the time you do it,” Harris says.

For years, Harris made money asking for change on the Plaza. He kept a regular schedule: noon to four, then about seven to ten. He was homeless and says panhandling gave him some stability, and even peace of mind.

“At the very worst, I’m going to eat today, and I’m going to buy whatever I want to eat. And that was fine with me,” he says.

Harris originally came from Wichita Falls, Texas., where he worked in an oil field, did construction and worked in a recording studio before ending up homeless in Kansas City.

But things changed in a big way for Harris not long after the holidays. In February, Kansas Citian Sarah Darling, accidently dropped her diamond ring in Harris’s cup. When she came back looking for it, Harris returned the ring. He thought that was the end of it, until local media found out.

“Two days later, I had like three stations lined up on the sidewalk waiting their turn to interview me. I was like ‘Oh my god,’” says Harris.

Soon, Harris’ story appeared on national and even international news.

“People were telling me that I was on this and I was on that. And I was like ‘what?’ I mean Yahoo, Google or whatever. And I had not a clue,” he says.

Harris was even flown to New York City to appear on the Today show. He was a good sport, playing his part to give reporters their story, but he admits it got a little old.

“I wasn’t too excited about answering all these questions,” says Harris.

The ring’s owner and her husband Bill Krejci started a crowdsourcing project to raise money for Harris. The original goal was for $1,000, but then donations started coming in. One donor called him “The Perfect Cosmic Citizen.” As someone who had faced a lot of bad luck, Harris says he wasn’t prepared for the response.

“After it really did start taking off, I was almost scared to look at it then. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high,” he says.

The grand total for the fundraiser turned out to be more than $190,000.

“I actually thanked the good Lord for that blessing,” says Harris.

Then the possibilities of the money started stirring his imagination.  

“My first and foremost number one deal was to go out and get a new Camaro,” he says.

After he found out the cost of a new Camaro and insurance, Harris decided on a more modest option.

“It’s a ’98 Volkswagon, which I kinda had pimped out a little bit.”

Harris’s Beetle is a ragtop with a custom spoiler and black and silver paint job.

“It’s just an eye catcher, you know?” he says.

This year brought another unexpected surprise for Harris. He had been out of contact with his family in Texas for more than 16 years. But during the media frenzy, they reached out to reconnect.

“I was kinda overwhelmed," says Harris. "I didn’t think it was going to happen in my lifetime, being 50-something years old and being out of touch that long, you just figure you ain’t gonna get in touch.”

And it wasn't just his family that got in touch. After the fundraiser and the news coverage, a lot of old acquaintances looked him up, now asking for his help.

“More money, more problems means you’ve got everybody else’s problems on your shoulder all of a sudden,” says Harris.

Today, Harris is doing some work as a sound engineer, and he’s kept in touch with his family. But he says he sometimes misses the freedom and simplicity of his old life.

“I actually have been enjoying myself a little bit more, more or less. Other than all the confusion and stuff behind all of this, and trust me, there’s been a lot of confusion. Chaos, basically," says Harris. "Not a bad thing, I would say. It’s just that I’ve got to juggle so much stuff now."

Harris says one of the hardest parts of this year has been getting out of the day-to-day frame of mind, and learning to think in the long term.

“I’m still in the right-here-right-now mode. You know, that’s one thing I have never been able to get out of. You know? Good luck/bad luck. It’s like, I’m right here, right now. Whatever happens, happens,” he says.

If you’re on the Plaza in the next week or so, doing some shopping, you might see Billy Ray Harris. But he won’t be one of the panhandlers.

“I still drive through the Plaza, and basically see ‘em. I actually stop and give them money now, believe it or not!” he says.

Harris says he still doesn’t have a full-time place to stay, but he is working on buying a house.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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