Outstretched hands Panhandling: Public weariness over repeated and sometimes aggressive pleas for money involves two troublesome issues: how to distinguish the truly needy, and how to deal with those who are not.

November 12, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Sympathy has run out for panhandlers in Baltimore.

Once content simply to urge people to stop giving money, city officials now say that most beggars, who often carry homemade signs saying "Homeless -- will work for food," are in fact drug-abusing frauds.

A panhandler who used to work the harbor area admits he faked being an invalid. In Fells Point, panhandlers offer to direct motorists to parking spots for money -- even though the motorists are using public spaces.

Even the head of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter said he sometimes is intimidated by panhandlers.

Inner Harbor visitors often walk a gantlet of grief -- sometimes passing as many as seven beggars between the National Aquarium and the Light Street Pavilion. Officials worry that the most striking image tourists leave Baltimore with is repeatedly being asked for money.

People simply are fed up, and police are cracking down.

"I'd say that a significant percentage of the panhandler population are entrepreneurs," said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who urged people to donate money directly to charities.

"They are not hungry and they are not homeless and they are not in need of medical attention other than for their addiction.

"In my estimation, if you give money to the panhandlers, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution," he added.

Advocates for the homeless complain that the city is unfairly stereotyping panhandlers and targeting them to protect the tourist industry.

"I think they are sending absolutely the wrong message," said Jerome E. Deise, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Law School who tracks legal cases involving the homeless. "I think it shows a naive understanding of the homeless and a naive impression of who the homeless are."

The city has tried to deal with aggressive panhandlers before, but last year it lost a federal lawsuit to the ACLU, which argued that a city or dinance violated constitutional rights by unfairly singling out homeless people and beggars.

But the court upheld the Downtown Partnership's "move-along" policy -- in which uniformed "guides" disrupt the panhandler's routine. The partnership is a private organization that promotes business.

Police say they are not targeting homeless people, just aggressive panhandlers. They also say they can distinguish between the truly homeless, who generally are not aggressive, and those pretending to be.

"They have a right to go up to people and ask for handouts," said Sgt. Lester Geesey. "A lot of people may not think it looks pretty or may be annoying, but it's not against the law. When they take no for an answer, there is no problem."

Giving a panhandler money, the sergeant said, can be dangerous. "I don't think that people understand that the same person who asks you for money is casing your car. You could be giving the guy who steals your car a $5 tip."

As Sergeant Geesey and Officer Lori Marketti worked the Fells Point area recently, they searched for panhandlers harassing bar and restaurant patrons. They also looked for those soliciting for money within 10 feet of an automated bank machine or guiding drivers into vacant public parking spaces for a fee, both of which are illegal.

'A pain in the neck'

Tim Teal's recent experience was typical, police said. Mr. Teal, 27, drove up from Odenton to visit Fells Point "to just walk around." He parked in the 600 block of S. Broadway with the help of a middle-aged man who wanted money in exchange for the service.

"It's a pain in the neck," said Mr. Teal, who did not give the man money. "It's all over. I like coming into Baltimore, but I don't like the panhandlers."

Officer Marketti overheard the panhandler soliciting Mr. Teal, and minutes later, Nolan J. Spann, 42, of the 200 block of Herring Court was charged under the aggressive-panhandling laws.

Mr. Spann, who has given police several addresses in the Perkins Homes public housing complex just blocks from Fells Point, is typical of the people police say they encounter -- those with an address and a long list of criminal convictions.

In October, Mr. Spann was charged with operating an unlicensed, open-air garage after police say he charged people $5 to wash their cars while they visited Fells Point. That case is pending.

Results of a crackdown

Since police started their Fells Point crackdown Oct. 20, they have arrested 40 people -- many on aggressive-panhandling charges, but also on charges of robbery, burglary, assault and drug possession.

Police say that those arrested often have places to live despite the "homeless" signs. "When we bring them in to the station, all of a sudden they got a place," Sergeant Geesey said. "They give the booking sergeant an address."

Mr. Deise cautioned that the addresses may be places where the panhandlers can flop for a night and not a permanent home. The Sun was unable to locate the 16 people charged over the past couple of weeks with aggressive begging. One address given by a suspect was of an East Baltimore homeless shelter.

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