In hard times, even the panhandlers go begging

September 23, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

James Smith sat outside the Maryland National Bank building on Calvert Street, holding a plastic cup and a sign that detailed his plight: burned out of his home, injured in the fire, two grandchildren killed.

Every word of it was true. But it happened in 1975 -- a fact that Smith readily shared after two quarters dropped into his cup.

After all, 50 cents is a sizable donation in this economy, one of the largest Smith may have seen all day. And Smith -- with his hand-lettered tale of woe -- was having a better day than most panhandlers can count on in these hard times.

A weak economy affects panhandlers, too. Panhandlers who have been working the city's streets for the past decade complain they are receiving less money than ever. If the recovery is in sight, they can't see it.

This economic problem is compounded by the public's perception that there are more panhandlers than ever -- although police say complaints have remained level for the past three years.

Still, some panhandlers, looking for greener pastures, have spread out. Once restricted largely to the downtown area, panhandlers now can be seen in Mount Vernon, Charles Village, Waverly, Fells Point and South Baltimore. Men with "I work for food" signs have staked out corners in northeast Baltimore and Lutherville.

"People used to pull out a dollar bill, five dollars -- a lady gave me $20 once," said Charles Barbour, 51, on the streets for eight years. "Now they don't, because there are signs up, 'Don't give to panhandlers,' because they think we use it to get drunk."

And, in fact, Barbour does use some of the $10 he cadges every day to buy a bottle of wine. He also uses the money to buy food and he won't turn down the offer of a cheeseburger. He sleeps under a bridge, so shelter is free.

Barbour is, in many ways, typical of the city's panhandlers -- a man, with no fixed address and a drinking problem, who lives entirely off the money he scrounges.

But the city's streets also support people who are trying to

supplement disability checks, such as James Smith and

harmonica player James Austin, both of whom have apartments to return to every night.

Then there are youngsters who say they don't get enough to eat at home.

"I saw someone do it once, when I was 10," said 15-year-old Daniel, who asks people for 20 cents to buy something to tide him over until supper. "I made more when I was younger."

If there is a common trait among those who ask for change, it may be their passivity. Baltimore's panhandlers speak softly, almost inaudibly, standing to the edge of the sidewalk or walking slowly through throngs of lunch-hour pedestrians.

They seldom make eye contact or repeat their requests -- a low-key approach compared with New York, where panhandlers congregate by automated teller machines, or Chicago, where men sometimes trail women down the street, scaring them into making donations.

These cities, like others across the nation, have addressed their panhandling problem with new laws and regulations. New York's subway police have cracked down on begging, a decision upheld as constitutional by the federal Court of Appeals there.

In Atlanta, Dallas and Seattle, city governments have sought to define "aggressive" panhandling in order to prohibit it. Other cities, such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., have used seldom-enforced anti-begging laws to discourage panhandling.

So far, Baltimore has not seen any need to step up action against panhandlers. But the American Civil Liberties Union is concerned that an 1860 city law conveys the power to sweep the streets of vagrants at any time.

"The vagrancy statute has given us some concern," said Susan Goering, legal director of the ACLU Maryland affiliate. "We don't have any information yet if this is enforced, but we're looking into it."

J. Peter Sabonis, legal director for the Homeless Persons Representation Project Inc., doubts the constitutionality of the law, but says it could be abused.

City police spokesman Dennis Hill said police will get panhandlers to move on but aren't looking for prosecutions.

"We're pretty active in running these people, especially if they're a nuisance," he said. "Arrest is the last resort. We've got enough other problems, and there are only so many cells."

While business district panhandlers say police officers seldom bother them, it's a different story in the Inner Harbor, which falls under stricter regulations as a city park.

The City's Department of Parks and Recreation bans soliciting without a permit in local parks. Those who do solicit in the Inner Harbor area are careful to keep moving and try not to draw too much attention to themselves.

For Pedro Jose "Gypsy" Gonzalez, however, being inconspicuous is difficult. Barefoot, a ceramic bangle hanging from his left ear, he staggered through the Harbor area on a recent afternoon, calling out to patrons at the restaurants in the Pratt Street Pavilion.

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