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Cornering the Market

Which panhandler really deserves a helping hand?

"He is not of the Christ," says Jose Hidalgo, gesturing wildly at Bill, the panhandler he's competing with at the intersection of Alameda Avenue and Santa Fe Drive. "He does not believe. He is not polite."

To illustrate his point, Jose hails a nearby Julian Electric truck and tells the driver to explain the evils of Bill. Julian gazes over at Bill. "I see him all the time," he shouts quickly, before the light changes. "He's flipped me off many times."

Bill looks after the departing truck, hurt and befuddled. "Not today," he says. "I haven't seen him today."

But Bill recovers quickly. Within seconds, two other drivers stop, hand Bill some bills, then speed away. This corner, right next to Denny's, is very lucrative. Northbound traffic is always heavy, and drivers are generous. Bill can usually make a hundred bucks in a few hours. He'd stay longer, but he has to catch the 4:30 p.m. bus back to his apartment in Aurora. He doesn't like to be out after dark, and the money just isn't that good then, anyway.

When Jose is around, though, fighting for turf on the same corner, the money is even worse.

"When he's out here, he gets three-quarters of the money. I'm not kidding," says Bill, who would look weary and bedraggled standing next to almost anyone. But his missing teeth, dirty jeans, stained sweatshirt and blue Solomon cap appear even worse next to Jose's groomed presence. Jose looks all official and approachable in his white suit with red emblems at the shoulder, an outfit completed with a clipboard holding literature and a donation can. He's raising money for the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ. He tells passersby that the church has 5,000 people working worldwide, helping others with drug addictions and homelessness.

Bill thinks that Jose's full of shit, so he's flying a sign that warns, "Don't give to White. (FAKE)."

"He's a fake," Bill says. "He's not homeless; he doesn't have no church. They come out here and they take my money, but it's a scam. It's been all over the newspapers and the TVs."

Bill's not exactly right, but he's not exactly wrong, either. The Covina, California-based church was commended for driving to New York and serving hot meals right after 9/11 and has no readily obvious black marks. But still, even Christian oversight groups have the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ on their watch list. In Colorado, the organization's incorporation has been revoked several times since 1990 by the secretary of state's office. It's hard to tell what the church does with the money it raises here, because the nonprofit has failed to submit annual reports (leading to its revoked status). Nationally, the church has been sued several times -- most notably by Wal-Mart -- in connection with its aggressive panhandling. The church's website quotes Bible Scripture and tells people how to donate; the phone number listed there goes to a fax.

The local number for the church that Jose provides rings directly to him. Identifying himself as the local pastor, he explains that the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ has been offering services in Denver for only four months, even though it's been registered with the state for fourteen years. "Services are in the basement," he explains. "We are renting a house. We don't have a denomination. We believe in everything what the Bible says."

Bill doesn't care much what the Bible says. He's more interested in telling how he served his country and was a decorated hero. He's glad he voted for Bush, he says, because "if Kerry had gotten elected, we'd have another 9/11." Moments later, he explains that Bush and the administration "knew 9/11 was going to happen." He says he's angry because Hispanics don't have to pay income taxes and acts taken aback when he's told that's not true. But then, he doesn't pay income tax, either. "I worked for the right not to," he insists.

These days, his only work consists of patrolling this corner. The rent on the place where he lives with his wife is $690, and what he gets from veteran benefits and Social Security only totals $527. He doesn't want to lose those benefits, he says, so he panhandles.

On this hotly contested corner, which panhandler deserves a handout? A non-homeless man capable of working who won't, or a homeless church with paperwork problems? When signs are flying high, who truly needs your help?

"I don't think you can really answer that question," says John Desmond of the Downtown Denver Partnership. "Even a trained professional may not know right away. There's no way you can tell whether someone is, in fact, homeless -- and, even if they are, whether they are using that money to support something else. We're pretty convinced that money is not actually helping them and is keeping them out on the streets."

Bob Coté, the founder of Step 13, has printed up more than 100,000 free-meal certificates over the past two decades -- and only 34 were ever redeemed. "My litmus test is that coupon," says Coté, who was once an alcoholic living on the streets. "If you want a job or want a meal, then, hey, here's your lucky day, here's everything you need. But if you give them those coupons, they won't come up to you again. I walk down the 16th Street Mall, and people won't approach me -- except for the people who don't know me."

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