Panhandling in Indianapolis

Bill Horton, a white man in his early 40s, travels in a wheelchair. He is newly homeless and “shakes a cup” as his sole source of income. When Horton’s car broke down for the last time five months ago and made him late for work, he was fired from his job buffing floors.  Bill Horton is trying to get around without his wheelchair these days. He says he uses the money he raises to buy medicine, as well as a specific brand of inexpensive wine that helps clear up congestion in his chest.In the past, Horton has fought for money and even made what he describes as a small fortune selling marijuana. He generated enough money to send his only son to a Baptist college to become a preacher. Horton unzips his thin jacket revealing a T-shirt embroidered with the word “Dad.” He is very proud of his son and cries when he speaks about him.

After he lost his job, Horton slept outside. It was only bearable, he says, because an elderly woman brought him blankets to shield him from the night wind. Now, Horton pays $4 or $5 a week to sleep in the basement of a man’s house.

On a good day, Horton earns $10 or $12 panhandling. The first time Horton tried to panhandle, he was arrested. He went to Shelby Street to appear in front of a judge for his citation. The people at the court were “real nice on account of my being newly homeless,” Horton says. The police explained to him that he cannot ask for money and must stay away from banks.

Horton no longer panhandles, which he describes as personally asking for money. Now, he just “shakes a cup.” As he explains his situation to me, Horton leans over the side of his wheelchair to collect a penny from the ground. He once tried to shake a cup outside of Steak ’n’ Shake but was told he would have to leave or he would be arrested. He says that he has been asked by storeowners to leave many corners.

Horton finds working on the street very hard. Recalling the time his earnings were stolen from him, Horton begins to pray. He says that “Bible” stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Although he struggles, Horton says he finds hope in small things like his favorite color (blue) and his favorite number (two).

Harassed by policeStanding on the corner of Illinois and Vermont on a frigid winter day, Doug warms one hand in the pocket of his old Army jacket and leans on a cane with the other. He adjusts his glasses and smiles, revealing broken teeth. Doug chose the location because of its close proximity to “church traffic.” He says that the people leaving church are the most generous.

Though he is not religious, he doesn’t mind “getting prayed on by all of them” because they leave a lot of change in his cup. Some even take him to lunch at Steak ’n’ Shake. Doug says he prefers prayers from church-goers to the loud, rude yells of other passersby telling him to “Get a job!” or “Get off the street!”

Doug, who is in his early 30s, is unable to work because he is disabled. He is applying for disability income. Doug says that he spent a brief period in jail because “some girl I used to know made up a story that I was stalking her.”

In the meantime, Doug earns about $10 a day panhandling. Without enough income to afford an apartment, Doug sleeps outside on the Eastside of Indianapolis. Doug says he is regularly harassed by the police.

On one occasion, he says, the manager of Steak ’n’ Shake ordered him to leave. When he refused, Steak ’n’ Shake reported him to the police for harassing their customers. According to Rita Hammell, a Steak ’n’ Shake store manager, it was the customers and not the managers who must have complained. When the police officer arrived, Doug said that he was aware of his rights and following the law. After observing Doug panhandle for over an hour, the police officer left without issuing a ticket.

Street musicianTom Merl Goins shares a two bedroom apartment with his cat, Tomcat, on the Eastside of Indianapolis. He says Tomcat keeps him from “going crazy.” He rides his bike to the corner of Washington and Meridian to sing and play his guitar in exchange for donations every day.

Although Goins was a laborer and served in the Marines, his true love is performing. Goins has been entertaining his entire life. His street performances began 15 years ago. Ever since, he has been playing his guitar and singing Elvis, Credence Clearwater Revival, Chuck Berry, Joan Baez and nursery rhymes.

Before arriving in Indianapolis, Goins performed on the streets in Tennessee. He says the Tennessee storeowners would fight for him to play on their sidewalks because he was good for business. In Indianapolis, the only business that will allow him to perform is the Flagstar Bank on the corner of Meridian and Washington. “They get it,” he says.

In September 2003, Goins was playing his guitar as usual when he was told by a police officer that he was not allowed to panhandle there anymore. In 1999, he received a similar citation and was accompanied to his hearing by a lawyer. Although Goins’ music fits the definition of panhandling, he was not violating the law and the charge was dismissed.

According to Goins, after his story was published in the newspaper, the Police Department received multiple letters from community members on his behalf. Goins was never harassed by the police again. A group of children excitedly run toward Goins and request “Old MacDonald.” “You know why I do it?” Goins asks. “Because the people love me! You know why they love me? Because I love them!”

Legally speakingOrdinances restricting panhandling generally fall into three main categories prohibiting either “street” solicitations, “aggressive” solicitations or all forms of solicitation. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide whether the First Amendment protects any form of begging, leaving lower courts to make that determination.

On July 6, 1999, an amended Indianapolis ordinance regulating solicitation for money in public places became effective. The ordinance prohibits aggressive panhandling, which includes touching people, blocking their path, following them or using profanity. Lawful panhandling includes a verbal request for a donation, or a payment for a performance, or for an item of little monetary value. This activity is restricted to daylight hours. Citations under the ordinance can result in a $2,500 maximum fine and the possibility of imprisonment for future failure to comply with the ordinance.

Jimmy Gresham, an Indianapolis man who is homeless and panhandles by day and night, challenged the Indianapolis ordinance in 2000. He was represented by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union’s Ken Falk. Gresham argued that the city ordinance violated his rights to free speech and due process under the First and 14th Amendments. The city claimed that the ordinance was a response to the public safety threat posed by nighttime panhandlers. The 7th Circuit Court held that the statute was constitutional and did not violate Gresham’s First Amendment or 14th Amendment rights. No appeal was filed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“People are scared by it”Lt. Jeffrey Mastin of the Indianapolis Police Department receives complaints from business owners, people who work downtown and from others who are confronted by people panhandling. “Generally, they are angry about panhandlers. They want to know why we can’t make the person move from in front of their businesses. They don’t realize that it is a public sidewalk. Business owners do not want to hear that,” Mastin says. “They are incensed that they are downwind from Mr. Fragrant. Last I checked, though, smelling bad isn’t a crime.”

Mastin thinks the ordinance was in response to business management leaning on City-County Council members. “Business owners want the police to put these people on a bus and send them to Albuquerque. It puts us in a quandary because we have to balance interests without restricting constitutional activities.”

Of all the problems downtown, Mastin says, the greatest numbers of complaints to the IPD are about panhandling. Sherry and Ted Bulthaup III, owners of Hollywood Bar & Filmworks, note a dramatic increase in panhandling. The Bulthaups feel attacked because their publicized show times make arriving customers easy targets for people panhandling. According to Sherry, panhandlers follow customers inside and sit on the couches.

“We call the cops and they only move them. They are supposed to take them to a shelter but they don’t so they keep coming back,” Sherry says animatedly. “Customers complain every night. They need to make the laws more stringent and keep them out.” Ted calls the panhandling situation “absolutely atrocious” and describes the conduct as “outright harassment.”

On any given night, Ted can count at least 20 people panhandling outside his business. When people don’t give money, the beggars become violent. To illustrate, Ted describes incidents in which an employee was kicked for not making a donation and where a woman pushing a stroller was knocked off the sidewalk. When Ted or his customers complain to the IPD they are treated “like jerks,” he says. According to Ted, the problem is the enforcement of the ordinance.

Craig Huse, president of St. Elmo’s Steak House, would like to see the anti-panhandling ordinance toughened. According to Huse, it is getting worse downtown. He would like Indianapolis to join other cities in making the penalty for aggressive panhandling a misdemeanor offense instead of a citation. He recommends developing a work program instead of allowing offenders who cannot pay the fines to return to the streets. “I know there’s not much you can do for passive panhandling,” Huse said. “But it has a major effect on local people when they get hustled downtown. It doesn’t encourage repeat visits to downtown. You never see a panhandler in the suburbs and nowhere else in the city. People get scared by it — whether it’s passive or non-passive.”

In Huse’s experience, the beggars are not following the ordinance parameters. “I can’t set up a business on the city’s sidewalk and make a living, but these people are making a living. There has to be a line cut from freedom of speech to making money.” Huse sees the same faces panhandling every day. “I’m sure there are people doing it by the book, but there are people not doing it by the book,” he says.

Uneven enforcement?To enforce the panhandling ordinance, IPD routinely stations plainclothes officers in the downtown district. In spring 2003, IPD added an extra pair of plainclothes officers to patrol the downtown district every afternoon and evening, weekdays and weekends. IPD Officer Steve May initiated the downtown plainclothes detail.

Although the ordinance could be applied to any group or individual seeking donations, May only recalls giving citations to people who appear homeless or extremely destitute. According to ICLU attorney Ken Falk, however, “There certainly could be an equal protection [constitutional] problem if the statute was only enforced against the homeless.”

In 2002, the city prosecuted 40 panhandling cases, nearly all of which occurred downtown. According to Lt. Mastin, the biggest problems are the repeat panhandlers. They are often arrested for multiple offenses, like breaking into cars and petty theft. What he sees most often are people buying bottles of alcohol with their panhandling money and then getting arrested for public intoxication. In Mastin’s opinion, the panhandling ordinance is not threatening because the majority of people who receive citations are proclaimed indigent by a judge and their fine is waived.

May noticed that panhandlers began to ignore the ordinance after learning that it “doesn’t have a lot of teeth.” Sometimes, when people panhandling ignore the ordinance, May “gets their attention” by charging an applicable misdemeanor offense (such as public intoxication or possession of drugs), handcuffing them and taking them to a holding pen where it takes an average of 48 hours to be processed. May knows all of the career panhandlers and says he has worked hard to educate them about the ordinance.

There is some dispute about how accurate that education is. Every panhandler queried said the police officers instructed them that at no time, day or night, are they allowed to verbally ask for a donation. Contrary to this instruction, the 7th Circuit has clearly stated that beggars could “ply their craft vocally or in any manner they deem fit (except for those involving conduct defined as aggressive) during all the daylight hours on all of the city’s public streets.”

According to May, aggressive panhandling is when a person works in concert with another panhandler, walks along side of you, solicits you in front of a bank, when you are in line or when you eat at an outside café. He says that aggressive panhandling scares people, especially women, seniors and children, because “these guys are smelly and they’re dirty and to a young person, little girl or boy, it can be frightening. You don’t know whether that guy’s got hepatitis or HIV when they put their hands on you. Most people don’t want those hands on them.”

May reasons that all panhandlers are poor and homeless. “If you could make a living out of it, you and I would be doing it,” he says. Indianapolis’ ordinance states that it applies equally to anyone soliciting a charitable donation, including political candidates, religious groups or individuals, and is not directed at people who are poor or homeless. But May describes a recent experience where young people tried to solicit donations in exchange for random trinkets they had collected, which were not worth pocket change.

When he chose not to give the group of young people a citation, May distinguished them from the people who appear homeless: “They weren’t panhandling in respect to the aggressive panhandling. That is a big separation in the individuals and their values — they were entrepreneurial, where a panhandler is bloodsucking us for alcohol. They have plenty of places that our tax dollars pay for them to go to get shelter and they just want our money for drugs.”

May believes that “laws are put into place for society so law enforcement people across this country can maintain control. Otherwise the bad guy would take control and it would lead to chaos.” To prevent the “chaos,” May and the IPD also provided the Prosecutor’s Office with information about the people panhandling.

Carl Brizzi, Marion County prosecutor, recently gave a presentation to the Indianapolis Restaurant Association during which he showed restaurant owners pictures of people known to panhandle and their criminal histories. Those criminal histories and identifying information, according to IPD Lt. Frank Jameson III, is not available to the general public.

Brizzi has also taken the lead in an effort to ratchet up the penalties for panhandling statewide. The prosecutor was a vocal supporter of Indiana House Bill 1263, which would have made panhandling a Class A misdemeanor. “Our Prosecutor’s Office works hand in hand with law enforcement and based on our relationship with them we saw that there was an increase in panhandling situations in Indianapolis,” says Brizzi spokesperson Cynthia Ridgeway. “Mr. Brizzi took it upon himself to get legislators to sponsor a proposal he had and he was successful and we have the bill.” House Bill 1263 failed to get a hearing in this year’s General Assembly.

Perspectives on povertyThe last 20 years have seen a rise in the laws targeting panhandling in its various forms. Cities like Indianapolis have tried to narrowly draw anti-panhandling ordinances to target the most inconvenient types of street solicitations and give police another tool in the effort to make public areas, particularly downtown, more inviting. Over half of the nation and many of the smaller municipalities prohibit or restrict panhandling, though not charitable solicitations.

Opponents of these ordinances say poverty and homelessness often require people to undertake life-sustaining activities in public places. Criminalizing these activities or judging them as inappropriate or unsightly in pedestrian traffic areas, they say, is a form of economic and class discrimination against people who are the poorest and most vulnerable members of our communities. Passing ordinances that criminalize life-sustaining activities (such as bathing in public, collecting change or sleeping in public) without offering an alternative (such as shower facilities, employment opportunities or suitable shelter) only exacerbate the problem of abject, chronic poverty.

Florence Wagman Roisman, a law professor at Indiana University School of Law — Indianapolis, offers a compassionate perspective. “I think that passersby should regard each beggar as a human being, as someone’s child. I think that as each passerby wonders whether to share her or his money and good fortune with a beggar, the passerby should imagine how she or he would feel if she or he were the beggar.”

When wondering whether the person panhandling will use the money for food or for alcohol, “the passerby should appreciate that the good of sharing money needed for food is infinitely greater than the harm of giving money that’s used for alcohol, and that the harm of denying money to someone who’s truly needy is much greater than the harm of giving money that’s used for a frivolous purpose,” Roisman says.

Not all advocates agree. John Hay is the former executive director of Horizon House, a day shelter for people who are homeless. He discourages downtown visitors and employees from giving money to people panhandling. “Panhandling would dry up as a practice if passersby would not keep feeding the habit,” he wrote in a monthly update. He warns that only a small number of people panhandling are homeless and asserts that multiple charities are willing to assist those in need if those in need are willing to ask for services.

Monumental ironyWhen I ask David if he wants anything, the 73-year-old replies, “A chocolate ice cream cone.” While he savors the ice cream, he explains that he began panhandling over a year ago. He is a veteran and has pasted his veteran’s identification card to his change cup to prove it. He says it is “personal information only,” when asked how much money he makes in a day. David chooses to panhandle in the Monument Circle to remind people of the irony.

He reports being harassed by police officers, passing cars and pedestrians every day. “These people don’t have respect for me. They give the dead people more honor than a live veteran,” he says, pointing to the State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. People pass David, ignoring his cup, to climb the steps to the monument entrance in front of him. “If you can’t honor the living,” David says, “you can’t honor the dead.”

About the author  Emily Benfer is a second year law student at Indiana University School of Law — Indianapolis. This article, derived from a final project for a Law and Poverty class, was inspired by a scene she witnessed while working for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. A man was sleeping on the sidewalk in front of an expensive clothing store. Although passersby ignored him, he was approached by three police officers. While using their feet to rock his body back and forth, they told him he had to leave because the clothing store owner complained. The man awoke and, startled, he ran from the three police officers hovering over him. His footing was awkward and he tripped and hit his head, knocking himself unconscious. At that point, Benfer confronted the police, who were ready to arrest the man, and asked that they call an ambulance instead.