Cross Street merchants upset about beggars

September 18, 1990|By Martin C. Evans

As a well-dressed man made a transaction at a bank machine on Cross Street, another man, shabbily dressed and smelling of alcohol, approached him, his upturned palm thrust in front of him.

"Please, sir, I don't mean to disrespect you," the beggar said. "But I'm trying to get something to eat. Can you help me out?"

The upturned palm has become such a symbol around the Cross Street Market that area merchants are asking customers to turn thumbs down on the practice.

Posters asking shoppers not to give money have been put up by some store owners, who say the explosion in the number of panhandlers threatens to give the district a tawdry reputation and drive away potential customers. Among the businesses that display them are a bank branch, a variety store and several stalls in the market.

Shop owners reason that if shoppers stop giving money to panhandlers, the panhandlers will move on.

"They come right up while you are waiting on customers," said Nancy Bongiovani, who sells pears, nectarines and other produce from her brother's Cross Street Market stall. "It's annoying when they ask for money and they are half-looped. Customers ought to be able to shop without being harassed."

She and other merchants say the anti-panhandling signs have been very successful in the past few months.

Efforts to rid business districts of panhandlers are not unique to the South Baltimore shopping district, a village-like collection of fast-food shops, dry goods stores, storefront offices and other small enterprises that depend heavily on pedestrian traffic.

Business owners near the intersection of Greenmount Avenue and 33rd Street had park benches removed because drunks were using them for afternoon naps. And the president of the East Highlandtown Business Association said merchants have asked the police for help in curbing the aggressiveness of panhandlers. "There was one that had to be chased from our property an hour ago," said John Stathopoulas, owner of the Round the World Travel Agency in Greektown. But several South Baltimore merchants say narrow streets, litter, scarce parking and plans to build a shopping center a short distance away on Fort Avenue already threaten the fragile business district, making a solution to the panhandling problem all the more urgent.

Many merchants and residents blame the establishment of a temporary shelter for the homeless last winter in the 1200 block of Wall Street for attracting desperate people to the neighborhood. A police officer who walks a beat there said he can distinguish about 50 "regulars" who habitually solicit money.

Gina Hollins, an Anne Arundel County resident who shopped along Light Street while in town to visit relatives Friday, said she gives money frequently to people who appear genuinely in need. But she said she understands how unruly panhandlers can discourage other shoppers.

"I think the ones who lie around on the street drunk or who are really persistent could be bad for business," she said.

Earlier this year, members of the South Baltimore Business Association, with the backing of a coalition of community organizations, agreed to put up the signs urging customers not to give money to panhandlers.

Most of the merchants agreed to take them down about a month ago when church and community leaders said the signs implied that the poor should be ignored.

"It dehumanized the people that were the most in need in the community and tried to just shuffle them out of the area," said Bruce M. Culotta, president of the Coalition of Peninsula Organizations, which originally supported the signs but later changed its position.

Jules E. Morstein Jr., president of South Baltimore Business Association, said most merchants agreed that the signs had been effective in reducing panhandling, and that to leave them up might invite further criticism.

He said the organization never opposed giving to the poor, but only wanted to discourage donations to people who would use the money to buy alcohol.

The merchant's association has taken other steps to strengthen the business district. The association hired someone to sweep the streets and persuaded city sanitation officials to make daily pickups of street corner trash baskets. And Mr. Morestein said merchants have organized sidewalk sales to bring attention to the shopping district.

But a few merchants insist they will keep the signs up anyway.

"They can say it's not charitable, but they don't have to live with the panhandlers. We do," said Herb Rosenberg, the owner of Herb's Bargain Center, one block north of the market since 1975. "I have to clean the urine out of my doorway."

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