Flying Signs

A local look at panhandlers: Who are they and why are they there?

Kenneth (above) has been homeless for more than six years and panhandling for the last few of those. He now lives in an overgrown trash-ridden alley and makes $30 on a good day of panhandling.
Weder (below) is a veteran of the U.S. Army. She has been panhandling for four or five years, and makes at least $60 per day. Her dog, Rascal, helps to draw on people's kindness.
Lawrence lives under a bridge and panhandles to survive. He is registered with the TCHC (Tarrant County Homeless Coalition) but was currently serving a six-month ban from all shelters.

| story and photography by B.J. Lacasse |
The temperature was hovering right around freezing; with the north wind blowing hard, it felt like 15 degrees as I backed out of my driveway to go to work. I headed west on Camp Bowie when a misty rain began to fall. I thought to myself, “Oh, great.” I flipped on my wipers. When they cleared my view, I spotted the lean, dark-clothed figure holding a sign at the corner of Bryant Irvin where I was turning. I immediately looked down at my console to see if I had spare change just in case my car rolled to a stop where I was within reach of him. I wondered to myself, “If I give him money, would I be feeding an addiction or feeding the man?” Either way, I felt sorry for him. The light changed green, so I rolled past him, taking away my decision whether to give or not to give.
    Panhandlers—we all see them and every time we all have to decide what to do. What do you do? Do you ignore them and pretend they are not there? Do you immediately look for money to give? Do you pretend to look distracted by a cellphone or text to appear as being too busy to notice their sign asking for help? Do you feel guilty if you don’t give? Do you get mad because they are there? Do you call the police? Do you call your city council member to complain? Who are they and why are they there anyway?
    It is my hope that this very up-close and personal look into panhandling, or sign flying as it is called in Fort Worth, will answer a lot of your questions and, most importantly, put a face to the issue.
    Fort Worth fares far better than most cities our size when it comes to panhandlers. The sign flyers that grace our city’s corners are of the passive type with only a few instances of aggressive behavior being reported. Cities like Baltimore, Nashville, Portland and closer to home, Austin, have all been in the national spotlight as having high numbers of beggars and aggressive behavioral patterns. Some so bad as to have physical confrontations become the norm.
    Most cities that have renewed their downtowns into vibrant urban living centers have become the most vulnerable to being besieged by panhandlers. The more liberal the city, the more tolerance there seems to be and therefore the higher numbers and the greater need for solutions to the problem. There is no easy solution to this social issue or a one-size-fits-all answer.
    City governments are taking on the challenge by some very different and creative ways. Denver has recently converted old unused parking meters into small cash donation sites. The money collected then being divided among social service providers in the city. Nashville has implemented panhandling zones where it is permitted only. Portland banned panhandling during certain times of day or night. Austin tried to legislate and ticket its way out of the problem and became a perfect example of what not to do. Austin passed legislation banning all panhandling or solicitation on grounds that it is a public safety issue. The law was appealed and overturned, citing that the city failed to prove with adequate documentation that it truly was a public safety issue, therefore making panhandling legal in the city of Austin. Needless to say, their numbers soared and the city is taking heat from business owners, city dwellers and tourists alike. What makes panhandling such a difficult issue is that we are talking about people. After all, panhandlers are citizens too.
    Believe it or not, current records indicate Tarrant County in whole only has 20 panhandlers; Fort Worth accounts for between 15 - 18 of them. The average age is between 40 and 60, mostly males with the exception of a few females and equally split between the races. If the numbers are correct, I was able to meet and interview approximately 50 percent of the population, or nine individuals, for this story.
    Eight were males and one female. Seven were white and two African American. All but two had a felony conviction. Four were disabled, rendering them unable to work. Three had social security as an additional income stream. Three were veterans of war. Seven out of the nine were homeless. All seven chose not to seek refuge in a shelter for varying reasons. Two, however, were on temporary suspensions from the shelters. For these seven, it came down to making enough for a daily room rental, food and any addiction expenses. Not necessarily in that order.
    Most were campers, meaning they live unsheltered—either refusing to go to a shelter or having been evicted from a shelter. Everyone that I interviewed confessed to making on average $30 per day. A couple made significantly more. All of them told me that a day’s work “flying signs” could be anywhere from 20 minutes to two or three hours long, making panhandling a pretty lucrative business. All stayed out there only as long as they needed to make what they required to fit their daily circumstances. This feature was originally conceived to find out if in fact the people out there begging, day in and day out, were really in need or just greedy. Sadly enough, there was not one person I encountered that did not need money, food, help or all of the above.

SIGN FLYERS: The face behind the cardboard I spent two days scouring the streets of Fort Worth, my goal to find and communicate with as many panhandlers as I could. Then I hoped and prayed for some to be willing to be photographed and share their story. My first day, I went out with my buddy Ana. She drove me around like Miss Daisy. The second day, I did a ride-along with Fort Worth police officer Donna Eldridge, Fort Worth’s Homeless Liaison Officer. Here are the people I met.

Kenneth This 60-year-old, shy, kind and gentle soul has been homeless for more than six years. He pointed down to the overgrown trash-ridden alley as to the place he called home. He has been flying signs for the last couple of years. He visually appeared to be disabled, slow moving, walking with a limp and relying on a cane. When I asked him what he did for his previous occupation, he said he was a cook all of his life. He smiled big, and his eyes lit up when he, for a moment, went back in time to brag about the finer restaurants he used to work for. He told me he could make about $30 a day “on a good day.” I asked him what he did this winter when it was so extremely bitter cold outside. He smiled and said, “more cardboard.” He said, “You get used to it.” Kenneth being six years homeless fits the description of chronic homelessness, according to HUD. Social services and housing would be available to him if he chose to seek help through the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition’s many partner agencies. He told me he didn’t like the shelters much. He felt like he needed to make it on his own. For Kenneth, camping and panhandling was, in his mind, living self-sufficiently.

Lawrence In his early 30s, Lawrence appeared emotionally unstable and angry. All throughout our time conversing, I found him to be extremely agitated about his current situation: begging and living under a bridge. He was recently released from the county jail, where he claimed to have suffered a broken arm while distancing himself or “quitting” the Arian Brotherhood of which he claimed he was a former member. He flashed me his badge showing he was registered with the TCHC (Tarrant County Homeless Coalition) but was currently serving a six-month ban from all shelters. To be banned from a shelter, it usually means you violated a substance or weapons abuse policy. The shelters, by necessity, adhere to very strict policy when it comes to the safety of the large number of homeless served each night, usually housed in close quarters. His survival was definitely in his own hands and pretty much the consequences of his own doing.

Jeremy By his own admission, Jeremy has a felony conviction on his record. He stated that all he wants is to go to work and make a living. He told me that with a felony you can pretty much kiss your chances goodbye on that. I came across Jeremy not once, but twice. We met again when I rode with Officer Eldridge. She told me he was quite the character. He would fly signs during the day and hop a bus to Eastchase Parkway to spend the night in a storage shed for sale at a local hardware store. I asked him why not get help at a shelter where there are programs specifically for ex-offenders. He told me he would next week. He had only a few days left to serve on his suspension from the night shelter. I believe a job would be enough to turn this young 33-year-old’s life around.

Weder (Pronounced Weed-R) Weder was my only female panhandler, and one of three who had housing and social security as her main income. She is 51 years old and a three-year veteran in the U.S Army. She has been out flying for about four or five years. She makes excellent money pulling in $60 a day, minimum. She told me her location by the mall proved to be very lucrative, especially during holidays when folks felt more in the giving spirit. I am certain that her having Rascal, a cute little dog, as a sidekick helps her draw on people’s kindness too. She told me she had to beg to make ends meet because her $700 a month social security income did not go near far enough to meet her basic needs of rent, food, utilities and such. She also has a daughter who is about to give birth to twins. She wants to help her too. I sympathize with her situation; however, I am not certain panhandling is a necessity for her well-being and survival as she does have adequate housing and a steady government supplemental income.
    While driving around that day, Ana and I encountered two more panhandlers. One was precariously perched in the middle of the five-point West 7th Street intersection, making him impossible to talk to. The last panhandler we spotted at I-35S had declined to be photographed. He was, however, willing to talk for a bit. This flyer declined to be photographed because as he put it, “He didn’t want to get into all that.” He was very friendly and talkative but very drunk. He was one of the guys out there that I had been educated about who only begs long enough to get his fix, pass out and start all over again the next day. After a few minutes of conversation, he staggered his way back to the center medium off I-35 as not to miss the 5 p.m. traffic opportunities. As he crossed the street, he was almost hit by a car—point proven on being a public safety issue, not just for him, but also for the unsuspecting drivers out there that have to avoid him.
    The second day of interviews was completely different in that I was traveling with FWPD police officer Donna Eldridge, and I was no longer just a curious photojournalist asking questions and taking pictures. Officer Eldridge and I had not traveled a mile from the East Lancaster sub-station when we spotted a man flashing his sign to oncoming traffic. She spun the patrol car around with lights flashing, no siren.
    We pulled up beside him, and she politely asked him to hand over his sign in exchange for a pocket pal. A pocket pal is a small laminated tri-fold that the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition produces which has all the names and numbers listed for social service providers in the city. Confiscating the sign is the kinder and gentler way to putting a stop to panhandling, according to FWPD, rather than writing tickets every time.
    By taking the sign, it will at least put the guy out of business until he gets more cardboard and a marker to make a new sign. Officer Eldridge believes we cannot ticket our way out of the problem of begging in the streets. Writing a ticket creates a vicious cycle of tickets, court appearances and dismissals due to indigence. If an officer arrests a panhandler, it will take that officer off the streets for one to two hours minimum, while the offender will spend around four hours in jail only to be right back out there upon release, thus costing the city money for all the paper work and the loss of on-duty time of a patrol officer. 
    Mike was the name of the man we stopped for the exchange. His tiny sign read “Need Blessing,” and in his case, it held true. Mike was 64 years old, a homeless camper with an artificial hip that had gone bad. He told us he really just needed a meal and meant no harm. We began to pull away when we both looked at each other at the same time and said, “Let’s go get him something to eat.” A 7-11 hot dog, a bag of chips, a banana and a cold drink would have to do. We returned to his spot pretty quickly and found him walking to his place under the bridge. We jumped out of the car, pulled close to his trail and hollered for Mike to let him know we had brought him a meal. He hobbled up the embankment with a huge grin from ear to ear and said, “God bless you. I can’t believe you would do that for me.” Tears welled up in his eyes as he told us that he was stuck out here because he too was a convicted felon. He had a petty theft conviction 27 years ago, which was keeping him from receiving any social services now. We left wishing him well and tried to encourage him to seek shelter.
    Darryn was the next sign flyer we encountered at the I-30 and Hulen Street Bridge. He was a guy one could have a little less sympathy for, as he had been in and out of jail all his life committing theft and larceny. We once again exchanged his sign for a pocket pal. He too said he was just hungry and trying to be good now that he was out of jail by asking people for their money instead of stealing it.
    David was the last person we met that day as daylight began to wane. His sign, meticulously written in two colors of ink and very elaborate, read: “Vet. Single dad out of work. Need help. God Bless.” In the upper right-hand corner, he had included his military battalion numbers. In the lower-right corner, he had drawn what looked like a seal of the United States Armed Forces, an eagle and the words “In God We Trust.”
    David served six years in the Army in Afghanistan. He has a tumor on his liver and currently can’t work like he needs or wants to. He has two children, ages 14 and 17. He receives $1,187 in monthly benefits, which for most folks on the streets would be a fortune. Out of that $1,187, he pays $500 in child support for one child and gives all the rest to his mother who is caring for the other. He told us he was doing the best he could right now but wanted to do better because being a good dad in his children’s eyes meant everything to him.
    As we talked, he boasted about his oldest getting a full ride to Texas A&M. He was out there every day trying to get just enough money to pay a buddy his required $10 a night to crash on his couch and a little food for himself. When we asked him how much he made today, a dollar and very little change lay in his hand after pulling everything from his pocket. He told us he would quit for the day even though he needed a meal. This time we did not have to pull away before we knew we were going to get him something to eat. It was humorous because he requested some very specific items from Wendy’s, including 1/2 sweet and 1/2 unsweetened tea. Returning with a hot meal and the sheer happiness on David’s face made this last encounter of the day bittersweet.
    As you can see, the situation of the ones flying the signs is for the most part heartbreaking. They do cause public safety issues for themselves, for the passersby and for the givers. Fact is, the way to change something is to do something. So just what is the city’s plan of action when addressing panhandling?

City Takes Action In October of last year, Cindy Crain, director of The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, held the first formal meeting addressing the issue. She gathered representatives from several agencies from across the county who would or could be a part of the solution of helping those in need. All agreed that a humane, cost-effective and non-legislative solution we would best for all citizens of Fort Worth. It has been proven in other cities that a more one-on-one approach of a social worker-type person getting to know the individuals out there personally and directing and encouraging them to reengage back into mainstream society works best.
    I spoke at length with Michael McQuitty, a licensed case manager working for MHMR at the Billy Gregory/Pine Street Center. It is his job to help those who are ready to face their addictions and get their lives back on track. He also agrees that we need to be compassionate and delve deeper into the underlying circumstances causing one to end up begging for money or food to survive. Whether it is people with addictions, mental illness, prior convictions, the under-skilled or unemployable, a disenfranchised vet or a chronically homeless person, the fact is they all need social services and a place to stay. Fort Worth has an incredible social service network in place. It is just a matter of getting the person to the place and, the most challenging part, their agreeing to receive help. Michael was encouraged that more space will be made available for those defined as chronically homeless through a new HUD grant called The Change Grant. HUD defines a person as being chronically homeless if he or she is documented as being homeless for one year or four episodes of homelessness occurring within a year, documented being the key.
    The City of Fort Worth has the social service agencies in place and a plan to gently guide people to the right places, but what can you do as a fellow citizen? Ninety-nine percent of all the agency personnel questioned on what to do said don’t give money. Take away the income stream, and you’re less likely to see the same people every day at every corner. By doing this, one can only hope that the persons down on their luck will soon realize that flying a sign is not a job or at least not one that will sustain them.
    Toby Owen, CEO of the Presbyterian Night Shelter, suggested making up little panhandler kits to give out if you really want to help. He said making the kits would require thought, prior planning and preparation time. Filling a baggie with toiletries, non-perishable food items, water, and maybe even a note of encouragement could go a long way in letting the person on the corner know you care. My suggestion would be to give gift cards to fast food places or, better yet, a CVS or Walgreens card so the recipients can get things they may desperately need. I give out shelter brochures and pocket pals when on hand. Now that you have seen some of their faces and know some of their stories, you may want to be a part of the solution. I encourage you to give to the existing non-profits already established who are best equipped to help.
    If you can’t give dollars, give time. It is the most generous thing you can do to help someone in need. Fort Worth is the most caring and philanthropic city I know of in this country. Together we can solve any social issue that we face now and in the future because that is who we are.

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