by Liz Daube
The homeless man
On Adams Street, rain clouds gather in the summer sky. A man strides toward me on the sidewalk. His gait is long and swishy, springing with a knee-jerk energy. His clothes hang sun-bleached and baggy on his skinny frame. Our eyes meet, and I know what’s coming.
Panhandling is illegal in downtown Jacksonville.
A 2000 city ordinance banned any kind of begging in the Downtown business district. The same ordinance made it unlawful to sleep or camp in any public area after being warned and given shelter information by police. A 2004 ordinance also prevents anyone from distributing food in city parks or streets without getting a permit and providing bathrooms and trash cans.
Jacksonville isn’t alone in its homeless-related regulations. In Orlando, panhandlers must obtain permits and solicit in small, designated spots. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently challenging Orlando’s ban on giving food to homeless near City Hall. In Los Angeles, the ACLU won a landmark case in April when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an ordinance that allowed police to arrest people sleeping on the street when shelter beds were unavailable. Atlanta enacted its own measures against downtown panhandling in 2005 despite harsh media criticism and threats of an ACLU legal challenge.
Jacksonville has received its own share of criticism. The National Coalition for the Homeless has listed Jacksonville on its “meanest cities” list. As the 2005 Super Bowl neared, media questioned the motives of a temporary shelter that housed or — according to some — hid the homeless for a week prior to the game.
Since the Super Bowl, national media attention on Downtown Jacksonville’s homeless problems has waned. But the homeless have not disappeared, and efforts to control them have not stopped.
“Excuse me, ma’am? Ma’am? Can I ask you a question?”
He wants to know where I’m going for the weekend. I’m not sure.
“Not sure?” he asks. “You’ve got to go home to somewhere.”
The man needs money to catch a bus home to Tallahassee. I remember hearing that transportation is a popular panhandling scheme right now: Everyone needs gas money, bus fare.
I give him my line: I never carry cash. It’s true about half the time. I have crafted this excuse from months of working and walking Downtown, finding the occasional white lie to be my compromise between compassion and self-defense.
But I have prepared myself differently for this particular moment. Before the man can move on, I pull a green pamphlet out of my purse.
In July, Downtown Vision, Inc. (DVI) released a “Helping Hands” program aimed at reducing panhandling Downtown. The program distributes brochures to Downtown businesses, which then offer the pamphlets for customers and employees to give to panhandlers. The brochures list a variety of Downtown social services, from free meals to mental health services.
Walter Thomas, operations director for DVI, said the program gives Downtown workers and visitors a comfortable method for dealing with panhandlers. Ultimately, he said, the brochure will help those panhandlers who want help – and deter those who don’t.
The ultimate goal is to get people to give money to homeless service organizations rather than panhandlers. Thomas said when the brochures become common enough, “As soon as one of these comes out, they won’t even ask you.”
Thomas said DVI wants to push panhandlers out of the Downtown area. However, the program has proven popular in nearby areas like Springfield and San Marco. DVI ambassador Celeste Harrell estimates that DVI distributes 200 brochures a day throughout the urban neighborhoods. She said some businesses have already asked for refills.
City Council member Suzanne Jenkins, who represents much of the Downtown area, said efforts to curb panhandling are needed to change the perception of Downtown safety.
“The bad thing is when people – and especially women – are harassed for money and followed and yelled at,” said Jenkins. “They go home and tell everybody. Before you know it, Downtown is a bad place to come because of one aggressive panhandler.”
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office arrested 413 people on panhandling and peddling charges from January 2005 to July of 2006; about half of them were Downtown. Lt. Adam Brown, who patrols the area, said panhandling arrests are sometimes difficult to make.
“We have to witness it,” he said. “We try to be proactive. We put police officers out in plain clothes.”
Brown said Downtown officers take walking and biking beats to approach panhandlers quietly. He said the Helping Hands brochures won’t necessarily deter panhandlers, but they will educate the public on the variety of services available to homeless people Downtown. The brochure lists three job resources, three health care options, five shelters and six Downtown meal providers (three meals on weekdays, one meal on weekends).
“People don’t understand that panhandling is not strictly homeless,” said Brown. “They’re coming Downtown because they think people are easy marks.”
I ask the man if he’s heard about this new program. He stiffens. He wrinkles his brow. I try to explain that I’m just curious what he thinks: I am a reporter, I am not trying to mess with him.
“Well, you know curiosity killed the cat,” he says.
I take a breath. I knew this would not be easy.
“Well, I’m a reporter,” I say. “Curiosity is kind of my job.”
Stormy is homeless. When she can’t find work, she often spends time in Hemming Plaza.
“I’ve never panhandled in my life,” she said, adding that even unsolicited handouts make her nervous. Stormy mentions a woman who once offered her breakfast: “I said, ‘Ma’am, I can’t do that because it sounds like I’m going to panhandle.’ You don’t want to get in trouble.”
Stormy says she’s had a crack and alcohol addiction since the death of two family members: her 19-year-old son in 1995, her mother in 1996. Stormy still has a sister on the Westside who she sends most of her pay to as a precaution.
“If I’ve got a bunch of money, I’m going straight to the dope man,” Stormy explained. She says that she’s done temporary day labor since her release from jail in April. She says she’s off crack and in Alcoholics Anonymous, and she hopes to move in with her sister soon.
Stormy says there’s a big difference between homeless who panhandle and homeless who want help. She says the homeless ordinances doesn’t bother her.
“We’ve got a lot of riffraff ... and you’ve got little kids that come out here and eat their lunch,” she said, gesturing toward the library and museum across the street. “It makes it bad for the rest of us that are trying to get along.”
The man starts to move again, nodding and shifting his weight and talking too fast. He scratches his head as his eyes jump from my face to the street. He tells me he wants to take Amtrak, not Greyhound, because trains go faster. I wonder which drugs might be motivating his behavior. He asks me to guess what his friends call him.
“That’s close!” he says. “Flash. They call me Flash.”