To give or not to give? Agencies encourage donations rather than giving to panhandlers

On the night of April 2, Debbie Fatkin and her husband made a visit to a local grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread.

At the edge of the parking lot was a beat up silver minivan, and a couple with their small children.

“He was holding up a sign that said something like ‘Out of food and gas. God bless,’” Fatkin posted on Facebook that evening.

She approached the couple and began a conversation.

“In broken English, he replied ‘Europe,’” she said. “I asked two more times because you don’t drive to Winchester in a van from Europe.”

The man told her he was headed to Chillicothe, Ohio, and he needed gas. He said the family would camp out in the parking lot overnight until they could get some.

“I told him I ran the local food pantry and if he stayed put, I could get him food and gas,” Fatkin said.

She notified local police she was assisting the family so they would not be run off the property. But before she could get them the resources they requested, the family took off.

“Before we made it to the other side of the parking lot, this needy family was heading down the Bypass toward Richmond,” she recalls. “So I’m giving him what he’s asking for, but he doesn’t want it because what he really wants is cash.”

As the director of Clark County Community Services, which is the primary source for aid for families in crisis in the Winchester-Clark County area, Fatkin said she receives calls about panhandlers or beggars in the community at least once a week.

Each time she extends help, the offer is refused.

“I feel like we’re seeing more panhandlers in our community, but it could be that people are more aware of it because of the things happening involving panhandling in Lexington,” she said. “They could have been there all along, but our eyes have just been opened to it.”

In response to what Fatkin believes is a growing issue, her organization and others are banding together to encourage people to spare their change in a different way.

“A lot of times, people are unaware of the resources that are available for families or individuals in crisis,” she said. “If you’ve never used these resources, you might not be aware that there are more than 30 meals served in Clark County each week. There are more than 60 shelter beds available in Clark County.

“For a community our size, we’re very fortunate at the resources we have. You can eat Monday through Friday at one of the many churches offering food. If you’re staying at one of our shelters (The Beacon of Hope or Clark County Homeless Coalition) you are fed. If you are homeless and looking for services, Clark County Community Services and the homeless coalition both have funds if you qualify to house you.

“There is no reason for people to be standing on the street corner panhandling.”

Spare your change

For that reason, Fatkin has tasked two summer interns at CCCS to develop and design information cards that can be given to panhandlers or others seeking resources in the community.

“Our cards are going to give information about what to do if you encounter someone asking for money,” she said. “You can respectfully decline and then give them a card.”

The cards encourage people to “Save your change,” because “panhandlers in Winchester have many resources available.”

“Help us help them,” the car reads. “Hold back from giving money when approached by a panhandler.”

The back of the card lists the various ways to access free meals. Ark of Mercy, Grace Bible Church, Eastside Baptist Church and First Baptist Church each serve meals from one to five times a week. CCCS provides one homeless food back with pull-top canned goods and snacks per month.

There is also information about transition or emergency housing available at the Clark County Homeless Coalition, the Beacon of Hope and GreenHouse17 emergency domestic violence shelter.

The United Way 2-1-1 number and website (uwbg211.org) is also shared, which will provide a list of resources for those in need in any county.

“The cards also advise people that instead of giving their change to a panhandler, they can support these agencies or another agency they believe is making a difference,” Fatkin said. “That way, they can be certain where their money is going.”

A hand out or a hand up?

For many, it is impossible not to feel compassion for the homeless, the hungry or the needy who ask for spare change. But that compassion is often laced with suspicion: Is that person really needy? Is my money being wasted? Am I being scammed?

According to Fatkin, those suspicions are often warranted.

“When you give that $5 or $10 or a gift card which can be swapped for cash, that may be the money that person uses for their last hit. That may be what causes them to overdose,” Fatkin said. “It makes us feel good to give some cash, but it’s not in the best interest of that person.”

Whether or not to give money to panhandlers or beggars is not a new issue. In fact, the fear of a “crooked beggar” is a long-standing one.

President Ronald Reagan introduced the idea of a “welfare queen” at a 1976 campaign rally, shaping how welfare policy and giving happens.

“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare,” he said. “Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

The conversation about these immoral panhandlers continues today. Sometimes the question is whether the individual will use the money to feed an addiction, other times it’s that panhandling can be an easy and lucrative career.

In an April 2014 Huffington Post article, the author recounts his run in with a panhandler named Eugene who said he earns as much as $200 a day. That could add up to more than $50,000 of tax-free income annually.

Also in 2014, a time.com article told of Oklahoma City resident Brandi Newman who helped an elderly woman asking for money to buy some food. Newman gave her some cash, and spotted her minutes later driving away in a new, candy-apple-red Fiat.

Most recently, a Facebook post from the Cheyenne, Wyoming, police department shared a similar story.

“July 22, we arrested a transient for public intoxication,” the post states. “This is a person we frequently deal with, but we want to illustrate that there are better ways to help the transient population than to give them money for panhandling. This person collected $234.94 in just a few hours of asking for money. Rather than feeding someone’s alcohol addiction, you can donate directly to local charities such as the Comea Shelter where your money will assist the homeless in a much more effective way.”

While there are no reliable statistics about the correlation of addiction and panhandling, Fatkin said she has first-hand experience with local individuals who panhandled to feed an addiction. She shared the story on the CCCS Facebook page.

“A couple of weeks ago, our director spoke to some panhandlers at the light by Walmart. The couple had a sign saying they needed money for bus tickets to Louisville. They stated they had collected $45 for their tickets but didn’t know the cost of tickets or that there was not a bus station in Winchester,” the post reads. “After more discussions, it was discovered they were staying at the Beacon. Our director immediately called Michelle at the Beacon to let her know that two of her residents were panhandling. After Michelle found them and had them come back to the Beacon, she had a discussion with them concerning breaking house rules.

“The young lady opened up about her addiction and how the money given to them would purchase their drugs as well as items at a local drug store, but she was ready for a change. Rehab options were discussed. It is not going to be an easy road. The pull of drugs is strong and most going through rehab will relapse before getting clean. Please do not give your money to panhandlers. Your cash is feeding their addiction. Your cash may purchase the drugs that the addict overdoses with.”

Winchester Police Chief Kevin Palmer said although some who beg are actually in need, it is also a way for others to feed an expensive habit.

“If you’re homeless or jobless and you have an expensive addiction, there are only so many ways to get revenue to support that,” he said. “Some turn to stealing. Others turn to prostitution. Or there’s begging.”

Fatkin said she knows first-hand many are looking for a hand-out instead of a figurative hand up.

“None of the times I’ve gone to offer resources, have the individuals taken advantage of those resources,” she said. “That tells you something. If it’s someone who truly wants help, needs help, then the resources are there and they would take advantage of them.”

Legislating begging

Some communities have seen such an influx of panhandling, legislation has been enacted to address the concern.

In neighboring Fayette County, an ordinance enacted in 2007 prohibited begging and soliciting on public streets or intersections.

In February, the Kentucky Supreme Court, however, ruled the panhandling ordinance unconstitutional because it infringed on freedom of speech. The court ruled the ordinance singled out and sought to prosecute a type of free speech — begging.

The case stemmed from the 2014 arrest of Dennis Champion, who has been charged more than 100 times with panhandling, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Overall, Lexington police issued 327 citations for violating the city’s panhandling ordinance in 2015. From January to Sept. 31, 2016, Lexington police had issued 195 citations, according to data provided by Lexington police.

“Only citizens seeking financial assistance on public streets and intersections face prosecution,” wrote Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. in the decision. “But those who are exercising free speech at public intersections such as a person holding a sign that says “‘Jesus loves you’ or one that says ‘Not my president’ has no fear of criminal liability under the ordinance,” Minton wrote.

The city has since enacted an ordinance similar to that in Winchester aimed at pedestrian safety.

“We have an ordinance that prohibits panhandling under certain circumstances,” Palmer said. “In Lexington, they kind of got in a bind for having police officers determine what signs could say and ask for. I agree, that goes against constitutional freedom of speech.

“In Winchester, our ordinance deals with safety in the road and in right-of-ways, at intersections and in traffic.”

The Winchester ordinance prohibits, “selling, distributing, soliciting, etc. upon vehicular right-of-way.”

“It shall be unlawful for any person to go or remain upon any portion of the right-of-way of any public way, which right-of-way is used for motor vehicle travel, including but not limited to the portion used for vehicular traffic or any median, shoulder, curbing or sidewalk, for the purpose of selling, distributing or displaying anything whatsoever, or soliciting contributions,” the ordinance reads.

The ordinance also establishes fines for those who violate the ordinance ranging from $50 to $100 per offense.

“The fact that panhandlers or anyone else is asking for money is immaterial in Winchester,” Palmer said. “We’re trying to prohibit people from being in the roadway, which is dangerous.”

Palmer said the ordinance was born out of a need for safety standards.

“It became routine for civic groups or organizations to stand on the concrete medians or on the corner with donation buckets,” he said. “That became dangerous, and when you have someone asking for money that walks into the roadway you’re distracting drivers and opening up the chance for a person on foot to be hit by another car or for other cars to wreck into the ones that stop.” 

Palmer said this ordinance does not apply to private property, which includes places like grocery stores or gas stations, where panhandling is common.

“If we were called there for a complaint, it wouldn’t be about that person’s speech, it would be about trespassing at that point,” he said.

From Palmer’s perspective Winchester-Clark County doesn’t have a substantial panhandling problem.

“Those who do it are very visible, though,” he said. “Especially since the news from Lexington kind of made people more aware.”

Palmer said another common fraudulent way to get money is to get in a public place and talk on the phone loudly about being out of money or gas or being hungry.

“They will then approach someone and ask for help,” he said. “I’ve watched people do it 10 times in a row and then when we approach the individual they’re talking on a phone that’s not even on.”

Make your money matter

For Fatkin, Palmer and others the question is not about whether to help a panhandler or beggar, but how to best help them.

Fatkin said in her work she has come to know that there is a significant need in the community.

“You would be amazed the number of people who are on the streets or don’t have reliable housing,” she said.

A 2017 K-Count study conducted by the Kentucky Housing Authority found that at any given time there are at least 54 people classified as homeless in Clark County. During the survey window, two of those individuals were unsheltered. Seven of them were under the age of 18. Some of the sub-populations included people with severe mental illness or victims of domestic violence.

“Not all of these individuals are scamming people,” Palmer said. “Some are genuinely in need. Some have also figured out that panhandling is easy money. Those people are praying the sympathy of others.

“These cards will let people know that they can be certain their money is going to the proper cause. If you donate to these agencies, you know where your money is going. If you give $5 at an intersection, that person could turn around and drive away in a car nicer that yours. You’re kind of rolling the dice.”

Fatkin said community agencies can also make your money go further.

“Every one of these agencies can take that $5 and feed more than one person, we could probably feed a couple families with that amount of money.

“These agencies have access to recovery programs. If someone is dealing with an addiction, we can offer them help. If someone is down on their luck because they can’t find a job, we have resources to help them apply. The amount of resources available through these agencies is significant. If you want to make an impact, do it through these agencies that can help more people.”

If you encounter someone who is begging or need, Fatkin recommends calling law enforcement — not so much to get an individual in trouble but have officers assist with connecting them to resources.

“We hope to have the information cards ready and out in the community by the end of August,” she said. “We will take them to both the Winchester Police and the Clark County Sheriff. Their officers will be able to hand these cards out when they respond to a call about a panhandler.”

While many are torn between good intentions and the unintended consequences of giving to panhandlers, Fatkin said they can rest easy by donating to agencies of their choice.

“We are trying to remind people that when we give to someone on the street begging, it’s not about making a difference in that person’s life, it’s often about making us feel good about ourselves,” she said. “If we can get people past that thought process, they will see that they can feel good and make a bigger impact by giving to these agencies, serving a meal at one of the churches or volunteering their time to help those in need.”

Free resources in Clark County

Meals/Food resources

— Ark of Mercy, 245 Winn Ave., serves lunch 11:30 to 12:45 p.m. Monday through Friday

— Grace Baptist Church, 250 N. Main St., serves dinner Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

— Eastside Baptist Church, 148 E. Broadway St., serves lunch at 1:30 p.m. every Wednesday

— First Baptist Church, 109 E. Main St., serves dinner at 5:30 p.m. every Wednesday

— Clark County Community Services, 30 Taylor Ave., provides a free food pack once a month for qualifying individuals

Transitional/emergency housing

– Clark County Homeless Coalition, 19 Wainscott Ave.

— The Beacon of Hope Emergency Shelter, 850 Bypass Road

— GreenHouse17 Domestic Violence Emergency Shelter: 1-800-544-2022

About Whitney Leggett

Whitney Leggett is managing editor of The Winchester Sun and Winchester Living magazine. To contact her, email whitney.leggett@winchestersun.com or call 859-759-0049.

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