Gifts of cash don’t solve problems of panhandlers

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | June 28, 2009 | A1

ST. LOUIS – Arthur Martin on many sunny afternoons can be found holding a tattered cardboard sign and begging for dollars on the traffic islands near the Edward Jones Dome.

If you knew him, you probably wouldn’t give him money. He’s usually drunk and will probably just spend it on booze.

“We’re alcoholics,” Martin said one recent afternoon while holding a piece of an old shoebox that read, “Homeless. Anything Helps. God Bless.”

He glanced over at his unofficial “wife,” Leona Urbanek, who was drinking Milwaukee’s Best Ice with another friend in the shade of the Interstate 70 overpass. Given his existence, Martin was strangely jovial and quick to brag to a reporter about his success in his chosen vocation: panhandling.

“Show him,” Martin said to Urbanek.

She pulled a bankroll from her pocket – mostly ones and some fives, more than $100 in all. “That’s just from today, a couple hours,” Martin said. “You watch me for 20 minutes, I can come back with $20, easy.”

People such as Martin and Urbanek – who stand on the side of the road with a sign or walk high-traffic districts asking for change – are the most visible,

stereotypical face of poverty and homelessness. As the weather warms, they become more apparent. And as the economy languishes, they are expected to become more prevalent.

They’re a constant source of frustration for elected officials trying to curb the practice, and for homeless advocates who say a handout on the street isn’t likely to help someone out of long-term poverty.

Some panhandlers defend themselves as people down on their luck, failed by the system or done in by addiction and illness. Some plead that they really just need a cross-country bus ticket, a fixed car or an apartment security deposit to get back on track.

Some are open about mental illness, addiction and criminal history. Many say they can get meals at shelters but want money for something tastier.

And plenty, such as Martin, display savvy and a fair amount of etiquette – knowing what works, what doesn’t and what will get you arrested.

THE FIGHT AGAINST BEGGING

Although many homeless people eventually move back to housing and work, the St. Louis region is home to a few hundred chronically homeless, local officials estimate. They get by using charitable agencies, government aid, scavenging or begging.

Experts say those who turn to panhandling employ a degree of rational skill but are often pushed to desperation by addiction or illness.

A 2003 Department of Justice guidebook for police suggests that nearly everything from appearance to working hours to location is calculated by panhandlers – at least some of whom are scam artists. Much research and anecdotal evidence suggests a majority of homeless have chronic health problems and frequently are hooked on alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes and harder drugs.

Dozens of charities and businesses have tried to persuade the public to give money to organizations that serve the homeless, rather than to the homeless themselves. For example, decommissioned parking meters in the Central West End, once a premier panhandling spot, serve as drop boxes for spare change that is funneled to area churches.

“It’s never a good idea to give anybody cash,” said LuAnn Oros, associate director of the Bridge, the downtown kitchen and social service program formerly known as CARES Outreach at Centenary United Methodist Church. “Even if they are not dealing with an addiction, it’s still then a temptation to use it toward an addiction. In the end, it’s not solving their real problem.”

St. Louis aldermen got fed up last year and voted to essentially prohibit passive begging after dark or near businesses, cafes, ATMs, public transportation, parks and city buildings. Overtly threatening panhandling is banned.

“The combination of that ordinance with the education of the public about why not to give money has reduced panhandling, in my mind, significantly,” said Central West End Alderman Lyda Krewson.

Beggars say police now are much more aggressive; although some officers hand out leaflets explaining the law, most panhandlers said they were simply told to move along or risk arrest.

“The police try to run us off all the time,” said Jeffrey “Texas” Cazel, 30, of Galveston, Texas, who said he lost his home there to a hurricane. “But this is the only way we’ve got to make money.”

A St. Louis Police Department spokesperson said via e-mail only that officers were briefed on the law after it was passed in March 2008. Since then, 46 arrests have been made for panhandling violations, according to police statistics.

But even as they frown on begging, homeless advocates also generally oppose ticketing panhandlers. They argue that criminalizing the activity more often simply moves it to different areas or pushes people into other desperate acts.

“Punitive measures don’t generally address the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness,” said Tulin Ozdeger, of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which recently joined a lawsuit against the city of St. Petersburg, Fla., over ordinances aimed at the homeless.

Walter Sanders, 63, a panhandler with one arm who frequently works the intersection of Kingshighway and Oakland Avenue, offered a rhetorical question: “If begging is against the law, then shouldn’t giving be against the law, too?”

Several donors didn’t want to comment on why they handed over money. One simply cited pity before driving away.

THE PANHANDLER’S METHODS

For the more than 20 homeless people interviewed by the Post-Dispatch, panhandling has become strategic and routine, a habit to support other habits.

Recently, Cazel held a sign in the rain near the Edward Jones Dome, while his friend Alan Williams acted as a lookout for police. The two worked in tandem and with other homeless people, splitting their profits.

A good panhandler can average $40 an hour, some said. Of course, they rarely beg for more than a couple of hours a day.

Panhandlers say scam artists among their ranks worsen their reputation. And many acknowledge that begging won’t solve deeper problems. “But you also don’t know how it feels to put on a clean pair of socks or underwear after you’ve been out here a couple weeks,” said Thomas Robinson, 48, who has gone through programs with the Salvation Army and can tick off addresses of all the area temp agencies.

In addition to treatment or help with addiction, most homeless people still need much more than they’ll get from begging. Rene Rowe has associate degrees from St. Louis Community College in culinary arts and restaurant management, and a résumé two pages long, but she also has an alcohol problem and multiple drunk driving convictions.

After months on the street and carrying her worldly possessions in a backpack, Rowe said, she’s not exactly prepared for a job interview.

“I need an apartment so I can shower. I need a haircut. I need clothes,” Rowe said.

Still, on a recent Saturday morning, Rowe set up with a sign and a “jingle cup” on a ledge near the Soulard Market, hoping for change, or even a donation of fresh fruit.

For James Scott, a captain with the Salvation Army, begging did nothing but prolong his days on the street. He was homeless on and off while fighting a crack cocaine addiction in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

He spent days “working a trail” among charities for food and street corners for drug money. Only when he hit bottom and enrolled in a Salvation Army rehab program did he get clean.

He still gives a dollar from time to time, even knowing how little good it will probably do.

“We should never lose our compassion,” said Scott, 49. “But I can say from my experience, it was never a few dollars that got me clean. I needed real help.”

Sidebar: Parents’ advice to their children about panhandlers

Several weeks ago, we asked readers on our “Parents Talk Back” blog what they tell children when they see panhandlers. Here is a sampling of those responses.

“Last summer my son (3) spotted a panhandler outside of Busch Stadium. He began to question me as only 3-year-olds can. ‘Why does he need money? What is he doing? Why can’t he go watch the game? Can we give him our tickets?’ I wasn’t sure what to say then, and I’m not sure now.” – AB

“I explain that these people are called bums. They choose not to work, and in return they are homeless and need a handout. I tell them to never give any money to bums. If you want, give to the church, Salvation Army, St. Patrick Center, places that can help them and make sure they don’t spend the money on booze or drugs.” – loki03xlh

“My son is 5 and I told him that most of these people are either mentally ill and/or veterans who served this country and we should be ashamed.” – SaucyB

“I tell my children that they are poor, and sometimes mentally ill. I say, ‘This is why we give to charities, and pray for them every night. Let’s say a prayer for this guy right now as we pass in the car.’” – Stillsane

“I tell them that these people are only here because society is full of suckers who give them money for nothing. If they got up off their butts and actually worked for a living they wouldn’t have to beg for money in front of the stadium, grocery stores, etc. However, beggars thrive on the emotions of the people – thus the signs ‘will work for …’ and/or ‘child terminally ill … please help.’ If it makes you feel better to give them money then go ahead, but you are only contributing to their continued plight and hope that they will get enough money that day for their drug of choice. If you really want to help, tell them where a shelter is or give them a real job.” – chad

“I tell my son the truth: Some of these people are mentally ill and can’t help themselves. The rest of them choose to be that way. We live in the greatest country in the world with more opportunity than anyone else, no matter who you are. I tell him to stay in school, work hard and not to depend on anyone and he won’t have to worry about ending up like that.” – Tim

“I tell my daughters that some homeless people are homeless because they choose to be. But most found themselves in a less desirable situation due to circumstances only they know. They is why we give money to charities, so they can distinguish between the two. But, if they do feel the need to do something, they should give a sandwich, a blanket, or some other tangible item – not money.” – kam”

Some of those homeless people were living just like us a few years ago, then their circumstances changed and they lost everything. Don’t forget that we could be in their shoes someday.” – The Voice of Reason

“I grew up with a schizophrenic father and now have a brother who is also ill. In the ’70s they pushed all of the people out of the hospitals with the advent of the ‘new’ medications. Most of the people you see on the streets are mentally ill and cannot function and have no ability to work and no one to take care of them. I taught my children compassion for those individuals and ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ It doesn’t take much bad luck to land there.” – croll

“I teach my children about compassion and helping others. But these people still irk me. You cannot win, especially when they approach you. If I give them money, I feel bad that I haven’t given them enough, AND angry that I gave at all. I don’t like being taken, and that’s how I feel. But what keeps coming to mind is, ‘When you help the least of these …’ In the end, I think God will judge the thief more harshly than I. At the pearly gates, he won’t ask me why I allowed myself to be taken, but will ask the thief why he lied and stole from me …” – hermosagirl

Sidebar: A panhandler’s primer

For some homeless, begging becomes nearly a job in itself, with rules and strategies. Among the techniques panhandlers say they use:

- Act thankful. “God bless” is a common refrain.

- Don’t approach cars.

- Be careful around children.

- Pick up litter.

- Respect another panhandler’s territory.

- Have a story or a witty sign.

- Scruffy appearances can be overdone.

- Men with women on dates are more generous because they like to impress. So are the poor, who can empathize.

- People waiting at long lights – particularly at highway off-ramps – are captive audiences and easy targets.

- Among the best area spots: The sidewalks outside Busch Stadium are filled with tipsy people with loose wallets. Tourists outside the America’s Center or down on the Landing are already primed to spend and are likely to be less tight-fisted.

Sidebar: To give or not to give?

For many, pandhandling presents a quandary: Give or don’t give? In general, experts say, don’t.

The alternatives:

- The Rev. Larry Rice, who runs New Life Evangelistic Center, suggests handing out a granola bar or bottle of water instead of cash.

- Webster Groves Christian Church recently offered the congregation small fast-food gift cards with agency referral cards.

- Donate instead to a homeless outreach center.

- Dan Buck, chief executive of St. Patrick Center, puts the onus on the public: Stop giving your change and you’ll stop people panhandling for it.

“It’s supply and demand,” Buck said. “Dry up the supply. Instead of giving, have a conversation with that person. Ask who he is. Maybe encourage him to get help.”

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