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Panhandlers have right to ask for money; answer is up to you

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If you were on North Superior Street in downtown Toledo a few weeks ago, maybe you were approached by a young woman asking for $16 to buy epilepsy medicine.

Several feet from her was a man sitting on a chair at a table outside a restaurant. Talking rather loudly into a cell phone, he seemed to be trying to persuade someone on the phone that he had already called others for help, but they had none to give.

Was he sincerely trying to raise the money for the woman's medicine, or were his remarks aimed at getting you to open up your wallet?

For someone in a public place to ask a stranger for money is hardly an unfamiliar scene. Americans are often approached and asked for money to buy a meal, gasoline, or some other necessity. While the scenes are prevalent in Toledo, they are more so in other cities.

A 2013 survey by police in Coos Bay, Ore., reported that panhandlers outside a local Wal-Mart could make up to $300 a day -- twice as much as a clerk inside the store made in a week.

A story by KCRA-TV in Sacramento, Calif., in January of this year, found that some panhandlers make as much as $182 an hour, willingly using children as young as 5 and 7 to tug on the heart strings of pedestrians.

But other studies contradict this information, including recent surveys in San Francisco and Toronto which suggest that the average panhandler makes between $30 a day and $300 a month. And it’s hard work.

Which studies are right? More importantly, how can you know if you’re exhibiting the kindness of a stranger or simply being conned?

“I don't think we have as much of a problem as some other communities,” said Sgt. Joseph Heffernan of the Toledo Police Department. “Nobody likes to see it, but there's not much we can do about it.”

No matter how annoyed one gets about solicitors – beggars, panhandlers, or moochers, as some label them – they are technically not doing wrong. The right to ask strangers for money falls under the protection of free speech.

Dr. Larry Hamme, chief clinical officer at Unison Behavioral Health Group, said, “There are some people who are legitimately panhandlers and who are not in a position to become gainfully employed, [such as] amputees in a wheelchair who are legitimately handicapped.

“Others find that lifestyle is one of manipulation and play on the emotions of people. And your heart reaches out to them and so people often do something to try to allay their feelings of guilt.”

One such case might be the 78-year-old woman in Oklahoma City found getting into the driver’s seat of a 2013 Fiat after panhandling recently. Daniel Ayala had just given her money, and it was not the first time, then saw her get into a late model car. Brandi Newman saw Mr. Ayala confront the woman, then recorded it using her cell phone.

“I work hard for my money,” Mr. Ayala said in a recording that also captured him threatening to break a window of the elderly woman’s car. “Thursday I did not eat to give you $4, and you drive a better car than me?”

It turns out Ms. Newman had also given the woman money. As of Oct. 8, the video had been viewed upward of 3.2 million times. The woman’s family claims she has a panhandler’s permit and was not committing a crime.

While “It's part of human nature to show compassion,” Mr. Hamme said, some will toss a panhandler a dollar just to get rid of them. After all, a beggar's grungy clothes makes others feel uncomfortable,.

While every street person is not a crook, Sgt. Heffernan urges people to do what they are comfortable doing.

“If you want to give money, that's your own personal decision,” he said. “But of course, any time you open up your purse or your wallet ... you are taking a bit of a risk.

“The department is not going to tell people not to help others in need. But be careful and realize too that sometimes people are pulling scams.”

Some of those scams can be elaborate. Mr. Hamme recalled a television news magazine story whose reporters observed a male panhandler in grungy clothes in New York City. They followed the man, saw him remove the tattered clothing, and get into a late model Cadillac.

“It was a manipulative ploy,” Mr. Hamme said. “It was a new caddy. He was a fraud. He was a thief.”

That said, Mr. Hamme offers this to ponder: Say someone with a sign asking for money is at a corner where 30,000 motorists go by. If the beggar receives at $1 out of every 150 motorists, that's $200 for however long it takes that many cars pass. If he gets $5 for every 150 vehicles, that's $1,000.

A person in a public place with a sign that asks money is not illegal, according to the Toledo Municipal Code.

“If someone is standing and not blocking the free flow of traffic and not in a cross walk or by an ATM machine or bus stop or other restricted area, and not soliciting but just holding a sign, then it's not illegal,” Sgt. Heffernan said. “If they are on private property and the owner wants them off, then they would be considered trespassing. But oftentimes it's not illegal what they are doing.”

Of course, some take advantage of good Samaritans.

“If we find out someone is perpetrating a fraud, they can be subject to charges,” the sergeant said, explaining that solicitors take a risk when they lie about why they need money.

Ken Leslie, homelessness advocate and founder of 1Matters and Tent City, said the only way to tell whether someone is honestly in need is to talk to them. Otherwise, he said, “Trust your heart. And if you do give money to somebody, it's not going to be the worst thing that ever happened.”

Recalling his own homeless experience, Leslie said those who convince others to give them money initially feel triumphant. However, that eventually turns sour.

“At night when I went to bed it didn't feel good,” he said.

Now, he urges homeless persons to sell the newspaper, Toledo Streets; those who do so get to keep the money they collect. Leslie believes this is one way for those in need to build self esteem.

“Do I encourage it because I believe esteem building behavior is better?” he asked, rhetorically. Then he added: “We all try to do the best we can. And for me, what matters is to create an opportunity that does build esteem.”

Contact Rose Russell at rrussell@theblade.com or 419-724-6178.

Toledo code says it is unlawful to solicit in the following places or conditions:

Any public transportation vehicle

Within 20 feet of an automatic teller machine, or an entrance to a bank

From any operator or occupant of a motor vehicle, or from any person entering or exiting a motor vehicle

At any bus stop.

Within 20 feet of any crosswalk.

While standing in line, waiting to be admitted into a commercial establishment.

In a manner that would alarm, intimidate, threaten, menace, harass, or coerce a reasonable person.

Using profane or abusive language or gestures, either during the solicitation, or following a refusal

By touching the solicited person, without consent to the touching

Contact Rose Russell at: rrussell@theblade.com or 419-724-6178.

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