Panhandlers move into the suburbs

November 30, 1993|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer Staff writer Carol L. Bowers contributed to this article.

Once, street corner panhandlers were seen only in the city. But in the last year, they have been become part of the suburban landscape as well, standing at busy intersections petitioning rush-hour commuters and mall shoppers.

Mostly young men, they hold hand-lettered signs that read: "Homeless. Please Help. Will Work for Food. God Bless." They have appeared on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie, on Rolling Road in Catonsville, Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia and Liberty Road in Carroll County.

Social service agencies and soup kitchens complain that many of the sign carriers are con artists looking for an easy dollar. Police say they are powerless to stop them. The men say they are just down on their luck and looking for work to get back on their feet.

"I might as well stand here. I don't have nothing better to do," said Charles Johnson, who held a sign at the entrance to the Chesapeake Center shopping plaza in Glen Burnie. Within a few minutes, one motorist handed him a dollar. Another presented him with some food from the nearby supermarket.

"I get enough change to eat," he said.

Mr. Johnson, 48, said he has been homeless for eight months since alcohol abuse cost him his job at a poultry-processing plant in Salisbury. He doesn't remember how or why he came to Baltimore, but for the last six months he has stood in Glen Burnie several times a week holding his sign.

Occasionally, passers-by offer him odd jobs, but he is careful, he says. He once worked all day removing shingles from a man's roof and received only $15. "I'm not going to work for him no more," he said.

A 29-year-old Glen Burnie man at the entrance to Marley Station mall said he has been homeless seven months. The man, who would not give his name, said he lost his job as a heating and air-conditioning repairman because he drank too much and has been unable to find work because he lacks a permanent address and telephone number. He sleeps in a tent in the woods behind the mall.

The intersection at Marley Station pays fairly well, he said, although police sometimes threaten him with arrest if he doesn't move.

That threat may work in Baltimore, where the City Council appears about to ban aggressive panhandling. There are no laws against panhandling in Anne Arundel, Baltimore or Howard counties. If panhandlers there don't interfere with traffic, they are not breaking the law, police say. Westminster does have a panhandling statute, and police chase panhandlers away, but other towns in Carroll County do not.

To Melanie Thompson, office manager at the Salvation Army in Glen Burnie, many of those at the intersections are not homeless.

"It's a scam," she said. "I tell people, 'Don't give them nothing.' "

Many of those who are homeless are not allowed in shelters because they drink or abuse drugs, she added.

Although the counties always have had poor people, the intersection panhandler is a new phenomenon that reflects increasing urbanization, said Mary Ann Lang, executive director of the Catonsville Emergency Food Ministry.

"Baltimore County is not an agricultural county anymore," she said. "It is increasingly like the city."

"Word has gotten out that this is one way way of making money, and the city is running out of street corners," said Jo Ann Zack, assistant

director of income maintenance with the Anne Arundel Department of Social Services.

The panhandlers said they are attracted to suburban intersections because they are safer than city streets. "It's dangerous downtown," said a 36-year-old man who was standing one night on Route 40 near the Westview Mall.

The man, who declined to give his name, said he quit his job in a Salisbury poultry plant to take a truck-driving course in Baltimore. But when he completed the course, he lacked the money to pay for the driver's license.

He said he stayed briefly in a city shelter but someone stole his possessions. He feels safer in Catonsville, he said.

John Jordan, 37, used to panhandle downtown. Now, he stands at the intersection of Joppa Road and Goucher Boulevard in Towson, holding a sign and asking for work.

"I do this seven days a week. This is a clean way of life," he said. "Being out here I get in touch with God and myself, and I really do meet a lot of nice people."

Mr. Jordan, who has been out of work for two years, said he receives $157 a month and food stamps from anti-poverty programs, but that he has been unable to get housing and stays in a shelter on York Road.

He is one of the few suburban panhandlers who accept help from social service agencies.

Bob Cremen, volunteer director of Caring for the Needy, a church-based agency in Howard County, said he has offered food, shelter and work to panhandlers at intersections in Columbia, but they have refused his help. "They said they'd prefer to do what they're doing.

"I personally know of two people who have offered to give these folks jobs for money and they never showed up," Ms. Zack added.

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