Curbing Panhandling | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

October 11, 2017 News » Cover Story

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    • Bethany Fuller

    It's a crisp Monday, and a man is on a mission for a morning smoke. As the squeaking brakes of a Trax train caterwaul behind him, he lifts the lid on a small waste receptacle affixed to a trash can and pulls out a butt.

    "Not enough here," he says of the cigarette stump, but puts it to his lips and lights it anyway. His dog, Squirt, lifts his leg and empties his bladder on the curb. Then man and dog continue along the City Creek Center's Main Street facade, and hook a right just past Starbucks, on the hunt for another butt.

    There he sees it, in the middle of the sidewalk, a cigarette intact save for the singed tip. He continues to smoke what he can of the first and stashes the second away for later. He knows the habits of smokers. He knows, for example, that when people sneak a quick puff while they wait for their coffee order, they're prone to ditch half-smoked sticks when they go back inside. "The guy that works at Subway smokes these," he says, holding up the bounty he just collected. "But he never smokes a full one." He runs his hand along the edge of the raised planter looking for a third. Nothing. The two will have to last for now. "A lot of times you can't find one," he says. "A lot of people grab them."

    Scrounging the city's nooks for partially smoked cigarettes might seem desperate, but for this man, it's a quotidian task in his morning routine.

    Waiting for the train to pass before he heads back to his stuff, he holds fast the leash on his dog—a beagle-labrador mix—who is urinating again. "He's a piss machine," the man says.

    This is a typical workday for Robby M. (he asked that his last name not be used), where for the next several hours he'll sit on a sleeping bag with his back leaned on a signpost, facing the mall's doors, waiting for pedestrians to drop money into a plastic container.

    To fill his belly, quench his thirst or pay for miscellany, Robby earns his keep with the spare dollar bills and loose coins pedestrians have jingling around in their wallets, purses or pockets.

    In brief, Robby's a full-time, bona fide panhandler.

    Wearing an unkempt beard, greasy hair and clothing that droops from his body, he sits for minutes on end with his head bowed like a monk or a sleep-deprived man nearly keeling over in slumber. He's almost completely inert, except for a hand that is lightly stroking his dog's ear. Water bottles stick up around him like plastic stalagmites.

    Today, most people walk by without looking directly at him. But then a man stops in front and pulls out his wallet. Robby, head down, hasn't made any sign that he's noticed. The man drops two bills in Robby's lap, waking him from his prayer. Robby gives a thankful nod then stuffs the cash in his pocket. The panhandler assumes his obsequious position until another man drops $5 and pets the pooch.

    Earlier this morning, another man sleeps under a pile of blankets 15 feet away beneath the mall's sky bridge. He also has a dog in tow. Robby says most people know this turf is his and his friend Corey's, who spell each other when one needs a rest, and he seems a little peeved that another person is setting up shop so close. Robby is less concerned, however, when he notices the resting man doesn't have a panhandling sign. "Probably just sleeping there to get out of the rain," he says. A half-hour later, the unknown man wakes and moseys away.

    Panhandlers in the Salt Lake Valley, like every metropolitan area, are ubiquitous, but an ongoing SLC Homeless Outreach Service Team campaign is aimed at ending it. Red meters downtown read: "Give a hand up not a handout," and HOST billboards are plastered around the city. The message is that if you want to help people begging for money, instead put your money in the meter and it will be distributed to service providers.

    All the money is deposited into the Pamela J. Atkinson foundation and then dispersed to more than a dozen providers.

    Robby is skeptical: "I don't see any of that." And the perception of panhandlers, he believes, is mired in misconceptions.

    "Everybody thinks we make so much money out here because they've seen some documentary on TV that found one guy somewhere that does somehow make tons and tons of money at it, and everybody thinks that's how it goes for everybody. But it's not," he says. "I go days where I'll sit out here for 12 hours and make $4. That's not the life of luxury to me."

    Whether panhandling is lucrative or not, Sgt. Scott Stuck, SLC HOST supervisor, says help is readily available.

    "That's the real key. If you're giving to the guy on the corner, he's not the one who wants help because he's not the one going to the service providers," Stuck says, and as long as there is an incentive to panhandle, people will continue to do it. Stuck would like to see the special meters expand out to the valley, particularly along Trax lines, to discourage panhandling in other hotspots.

    "They make sure that the resources get allocated to the right facilities that can then get them to the right individuals. When someone panhandles, that money is going primarily to drugs and alcohol. They're not spending that money the way these resource facilities like the Catholic Community Services can," he says.

    Last month, Salt Lake City began dispatching outreach teams that comprise a HOST officer or crisis-intervention officer and a social worker. "They'll follow up with homeless individuals, they'll stop and talk to panhandlers and see if there's resources they can provide them. We're trying to go out proactively and meet the problem and figure out what we can help with," Stuck says.

    The homeless population knows where to get food or shelter, he continues, but sometimes they don't know where to get specific services. "If it's a mental health issue, they might not know where to go. Alcoholics or drug addicts who want to get off the street, sometimes they don't even know how to begin that."

    HOST officer Matt Overman says he's encountered people knocked out on the synthetic narcotic known as spice, "and their pockets will be full of change. It's the same people you see on Main Street asking for change."

    St. Vincent de Paul provides three meals a day, and Overman says people are only turned away if they're on the shortlist—meaning they were kicked out for fighting—but even they can get a sack lunch.

    The Community Connection Center on 200 S. and 500 West is set up to be a centralized service facility.

    “I go days where I’ll sit out here for 12 hours and make $4. That’s not the life of luxury to me.” - —Panhandler Robby M. - BETHANY FULLER
    • Bethany Fuller
    • “I go days where I’ll sit out here for 12 hours and make $4. That’s not the life of luxury to me.” —Panhandler Robby M.

    Safe Streets
    While nonprofits are trying to change the behavior of charitable folks who want to give money to panhandlers, the state is also nudging panhandlers off certain street corners.

    After taking a trip to Florida where he witnessed roving panhandlers, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, decided to push for a law here to eliminate spaces shared by moving vehicles and pedestrians.

    "There were panhandlers wandering up and down the off-ramps between cars. I thought that's probably coming to Utah," he says of his Florida observations. "I also saw a family in the median with their children panhandling. That was troubling on several fronts." He thought about the potential tragedy of a driver buzzing too close to the middle line and clipping a child.

    "Although I haven't come—quote—'close' to hitting someone, I have passed people standing in medians at a high rate of speed and it does concern me," Eliason says. "It absolutely takes your attention off driving if you think, 'Am I going to hit that person or are they going to step in front of me?' and so there is no question that it's an increased traffic hazard. It doesn't take a traffic engineer to tell you that."

    So he introduced a bill last session—House Bill 161, the Pedestrian Safety Amendments—that prohibits exchanges between motorists and pedestrians.

    The first two times a person is cited under this law, he or she can be issued a citation. On the third offense, the panhandler could be hit with a misdemeanor. But it doesn't only apply to the person receiving money. Equally, a motorist who hands money or food is in violation.

    The state passed an anti-panhandling bill in 2014, House Bill 101, but a judge struck down portions of the law on grounds that it trampled the right to free speech. Reviewing case law, Eliason realized he needed to be careful and precise if he wanted this piece of legislation to be upheld. So he worked with the ACLU of Utah to draft its language.

    ACLU Legislative and Policy Counsel Marina Lowe confirmed that the representative consulted with the ACLU before submitting his bill. The ACLU didn't oppose his stated goal of preventing individuals from stepping onto the roadway, Lowe said, but it took a neutral position on the bill during the session.

    Eliason points to distinct differences between his legislation and the prior unconstitutional law. The former bill banned panhandling along every road in the state. HB 161 was narrowly written to include controlled freeways, on-ramps and off-ramps, and paved roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or greater. "It doesn't apply to the majority of the lane miles in the state," he says. "It's only when pedestrians enter traffic to do business and risk themselves as well as slow the flow of traffic that are generally high-speed lanes."

    Eliason's colleagues at the Capitol agreed with him, and HB 161 breezed through the Legislature.

    If it appears Eliason's ultimate goal with his bill is to wash the streets of panhandlers, he says that's not true. The bill, he argues, isn't merely couched in public safety terms and, in fact, it doesn't outlaw panhandling. Instead, he hopes that those people who chose to panhandle will relocate to safer areas. If the goal had been to completely eliminate it, the bill would have been written differently, he points out.

    "If you pull over to the side of the road to a safe spot, knock yourself out. Give them as much money or food as you desire. They have every right to stand there and do that," he says. "My bill says you can stand there all you want with your sign and megaphone and say whatever you want. The problem is when you enter traffic to commence some sort of exchange, whether that's property or money or food or whatever."

    The ACLU's Lowe says sometimes the way a law is applied reveals a better picture than a lawmaker's expressed intentions. "If the intent is to prohibit the act of panhandling or reduce the presence of people in our midst that are asking for help, then that is problematic," she says.

    But enforcement among the jurisdictions will determine whether the law successfully relocates panhandlers from dangerous intersections, Eliason says.

    Salt Lake City Police Detective Greg Wilking told City Weekly in early September that their officers hadn't cited any panhandlers in the city under the new code. Not only was panhandling a lower priority, but the on-ramps and off-ramps are Utah Highway Patrol jurisdiction, he noted.

    The majority of panhandling-related calls the police receive are complaints of aggressive panhandling. Unless an officer witnesses it, Wilking says, it's hard to enforce. "Most of the time by the time we get there, they're gone," he says. And although threatening a person is a crime, annoying someone isn't.

    West Valley City spokesperson Sam Johnson said last month that his city had also issued zero citations to drivers or panhandlers. Rather, police were focusing on educating the public about the new law.

    Prior to the state law, Midvale City—a municipality that partially falls in Eliason's district—passed a panhandling ordinance and enforced it by first issuing warnings. The effect, Eliason says, was that panhandlers relocated to nearby cities that didn't have ordinances or took a lax approach.

    "When I would get on the freeway at 90th South and I-15, it was not uncommon to see people on four corners down there," he says. "So if some cities choose to enforce it and others don't, then the problem is going to be much worse in those cities that have a stand-down policy."

    Though not engaging in an all-out blitz, Utah Highway Patrol has begun ticketing panhandlers when it's apparent, says Lt. Jeff Nigbur. On Aug. 17, the UHP began making "contact" with panhandlers. Troopers ran the names of three people spotted panhandling on the first day—on 400 South, 1300 South and 3300 South. "All three had warrants," Nigbur says. "All three had narcotics on them."

    Some Kind of Ordinance
    Somewhat redundantly, West Valley City council passed an ordinance that mirrors state law. Spokesman Johnson says it's a way to ensure the city has control over its high-speed intersections, regardless of what happens at the state level.

    "Safety is always a concern," he says. "In the busier intersections, you'll see someone running across the street to exchange money. It has been a concern for us."

    But there are signs that point to panhandling ordinances being less about safety, and more about eliminating what many in the public see as a discomfiting nuisance—but one that is constitutionally protected, nonetheless. None of the emails sent to any West Valley City council member in the past two years mentioned concerns that a car might hit a panhandler, a records request revealed.

    Consider, instead, an email sent from a constituent to West Valley City Councilwoman Karen Lang in December 2015: The panhandling situation at a shopping district near 3500 South and 5600 West was out of control, it began. The emailer said she and her elderly mother were bothered by a young panhandler at an ATM, then spotted the same man in a Walmart parking lot a day or so later. The emailer felt intimidated walking to the store, she said.

    "West Valley City needs to come up with some kind of ordinance that either stops the panhandling or restricts it to certain locations like street corners," the email states. Ironically, the ordinances and laws passed by the city and state do the opposite. Instead of relegating panhandlers to intersections, it pushes them to areas such as storefronts or parking lots.

    In its first month enforcing the new law, UHP continued to make contact with panhandlers and drivers, and Nigbur says it's working—that panhandling is slowing on the busier streets and intersections.

    On an uncharacteristically warm fall day, a rocky area at the bottom of the I-80 and 700 East off-ramp is vacant. It's a place where panhandlers, even in the frigid winter, are a permanent fixture. But on this late afternoon, in the 70-degree air, there's not a soul to be seen.

    Nigbur says it's unclear whether the new law is changing the behavior of panhandlers, or merely ushering them to different spots.

    On that same day and only a few blocks north of the I-80 and 1300 South nexus, a young couple held an "Anything Helps" sign up to drivers leaving a fast-food restaurant. They claim to be stranded in Utah. Their stuff was stolen, they tell a reporter, and they're looking to gather $180 to buy two bus tickets that would get them back to California.

    It was a hard row, they said. They'd been sneered at and had only earned half of the money they needed.

    They look tired, and cut the interview short, saying to talk more would only eat into the time they could be panhandling. A few moments later, the man sits down beneath the shade of a tree.


    Follow the Money
    Although Eliason's bill is only an attempt to solve a traffic issue, he has a few thoughts about panhandling in general. For one, he wouldn't recommend giving money to them wherever they might be standing.

    Eliason has sat on the Shelter the Homeless board for 12 years, and even served as chair for a stint. One day, he says, he asked people whether The Road Home administration gave money to panhandlers. The response, an unequivocal no, stuck with him: "I know all full too well that the currency I give them could be used to purchase the fatal dose of heroin that takes their lives," he says.

    It's no secret that among the homeless, many are wracked by addiction—and disease threw them into the depths of poverty. Handing someone who is struggling with addiction a wad of cash compounds the problems, Eliason argues. "The money you give these folks, within minutes or hours, could end up in the hands of a drug cartel in exchange for black-tar heroin."

    He's talked to panhandlers in downtown Salt Lake City he says, and recommends they grab a meal at St. Vincent de Paul's or get shelter at The Road Home. In these cases, he says he's met with excuses, like that the shelter is full, that they won't allow dogs, or that—despite its reputation—drugs are barred.

    "If a dog is more important than a warm bed, that's your choice," he says.

    But the services exist, whether it's at the Fourth Street Clinic, The Road Home shelter, Volunteers of America or the YWCA, all of which are accountable for how they spend their money. From a business perspective, Eliason says, he's considering the return on investment. "Am I going to see that money effectively used or wasted?" he asks. "And I consider narcotics not just a waste of money but a tragedy. If I'm helping fuel that addiction I'm exacerbating the issues that they're dealing with."

    As a homeless man, Robby at City Creek Center acknowledges the link between panhandlers and drugs. "I'm not going to lie; there are people out here who do that. There's a lot of them," he says, but if someone wants to give money, they should have that option, he counters, rather than have the choice foisted upon them.

    As for him, he denies using the money for drugs. He says he buys food and other necessities. A recent ankle tweak meant he needed medical supplies. "I used most of the money I made this weekend to buy relief cream, ibuprofen, Ace bandages and stuff like that," he says.

    Robby doesn't only panhandle; he recently held a temp job, he says. Originally from Washington State, he'd been married, living with his wife and four kids until he moved to Utah to sell meat. Around the time he was struck with medical problems, the company he worked for relocated, and he's been down on his luck for the better part of a year. Robby says he stayed at the shelter for a few days, but the drugs and violence scared him away. Now he camps in a park with his pal, Corey.

    He's not alone; plenty of homeless avoid the Rio Grande area.

    Outside the Starbucks on Main Street, three despondent panhandlers sit and wait. At the feet of one man, a display of small, handcrafted dreamcatchers fail to catch the eye of any passerby on this morning.

    Another in the group, Frank Harrison, sits next to a cart that holds a few of his possessions and a panhandling sign. When he first started experiencing homelessness, Harrison stayed at the shelter, sleeping on the floor in the front office while his stuff, including a cell phone, was stowed behind a counter. One morning, it went missing, he said, and an agitated Harrison began demanding the staff help him find his stuff. His anger and desperation grew with each day. "After three days, I pulled a knife," he says, resulting in an assault charge and a 120-day stint in jail.

    (Court records, however, indicate a Frank Harrison was sentenced to 120 days for drug possession last year. None could be found for an assault charge under that name.)

    Harrison's run-ins with the law started when he was teenager in Florida. Beaten by his stepfather, he says he ran away at age 17. One night, Harrison broke into a house while the owners slept to nab some food. The cat-burglar crime led to an arrest, a felony conviction and a lengthy prison sentence.

    Post-sentence, he took labor jobs, such as roofing. Then he met a woman on an internet poker site, he says, and soon they fell in love. Harrison moved to be with her in West Valley City around 2010. Like him, she was disabled. He served as her partner and care provider until she died, he says.

    Now he's penniless and shoeless, and his prospects aren't great. Harrison suffers from porphyria cutanea tarda, a rare blood/skin disease that "eats you up from the inside out," he says. The spot of skin between his gloved hand and shirt sleeve reveals an open sore, about an inch and a half in diameter that looks festering and infected. He points to two other dark spots that he says will burst into open sores soon enough.

    Harrison also suffers from Bell's palsy, and to top off his troubles, he hasn't been able to see out of his left eye after two dog hairs lodged behind it. Doctors pulled them out but weren't able to save his vision, and he now wears an eye patch.

    "People tell me to get a job. Give me a job. I don't really have use of my hands," he says, emphasizing that he'd rather not beg for money. "This is embarrassing to me. It's degrading." He says in his condition, he'd think he'd qualify for housing. "I should be one of the ones on top of the list. Plus I'm dying," Harrison says.

    Those trying to curb panhandling, however, argue that almost anyone is employable. Utah enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, Eliason points out, and "now hiring" signs are plentiful.

    "Most temp agencies don't do a background check, a credit check or check most references. They just need anybody who can show up and work on an assembly line or make tacos. If people are wanting to work, we have plenty of opportunities in our economy right now," he says. "There's plenty of social service places for people who are hungry, want a place to sleep, are victims of domestic violence, are suffering from substance abuse." People just have to chose to use them, he adds.

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