Panhandle With Care
On a brisk Tuesday evening in February, concerned citizens, town council members and a cadre of T-shirt-clad firefighters gather at the town hall in Castle Rock -- the largest enclave in a county with the second-highest median household income in the nation, a county in which less than 2.1 percent of families live below the federal poverty level -- to discuss a disturbing trend that has become almost synonymous with Castle Rock itself: panhandlers. Forget those McMansions springing up across the plains and those upscale Factory Outlet shops such as Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren -- that's just what outsiders see. Pulsing beneath the slick surface of Castle Rock, like a pus-oozing tumor infecting the city's main arteries and veins, is a sinister plague so rotten, it's eroding the very social fabric of the entire East Plum Creek Valley.
Or so some townsfolk would have you believe.
Block captain Ed Dash has seen it all before. He came from a large West Coast city, where he learned firsthand how panhandling leads to the sort of depravity that ruined his boyhood home. Plus, it makes him uncomfortable.
"People feel intimidated when they approach intersections and see these people making eye contact with them," Dash tells the council. "It makes people feel nervous. And the behavior is reinforced because people do contribute."
Not only are these panhandlers intimidating, resident Jamie Kimbrough adds, but they're dishonest. A man she knew spotted one of these derelicts on a corner, begging for change, and offered him an honest day's labor. And what did the derelict do? He refused the hard work in favor of standing there and taking Castle Rock commuters' hard-earned money. And besides, some of these seemingly homeless panhandlers are not really homeless at all.
"They're grifting," she says, causing everyone in the room to check their watches and make sure it isn't 1926. Kimbrough doesn't want to be over-dramatic, but if Castle Rock continues to allow panhandling while other places ban it, will the town be overrun by grifters? Someday, she suggests darkly, it might even resemble the dreaded 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver!
But there is opposition to the proposed Solicitations in the Right of Way ordinance, which would ban panhandlers from intersections, penalizing violators with fines of up to $1,000 and a year in jail. The city's firefighters show up en masse, not to argue for the rights of all beggars to beg, but to defend their Fill the Boot tradition. Every Labor Day, firefighters take to sidewalks, medians and intersections around the country to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, shaking their boots and smiling their beefy smiles for charity. How will the Castle Rock firefighters do their bit for the MDA, for Jerry's Kids, if the ordinance passes?
Town council member Mitch Dulleck feels their pain. "I think that right now what the firefighters do outweighs the fact that we have a handful of people who panhandle," he says.
The measure was first proposed a year ago, after residents began complaining about the panhandlers springing up on Castle Rock's well-manicured medians. The council voted it down then and promised to address the issue again later, after the proposal was reworked to allow the firefighters' pet project. But now the town's legal staff has determined that allowing firefighters to panhandle but banning the activity for everyone else is unconstitutional. So in Castle Rock, it will be all -- or nothing.
That's why the firefighters, councilmembers and crotchety residents have been debating the matter at top volume, discussing everything from boot size, to evasive hobo stares, to why the French so adore Jerry Lewis. They discuss everything but the obvious: There are no homeless people in Castle Rock. I've been to Castle Rock dozens of times, and I don't recall ever seeing a homeless person here -- and if I did, the homeless person was obviously not drawing attention to his destitute self through panhandling, much less doing anything to inspire a year of debate and waste the time of dozens of hunky, hunky firemen.
Town Attorney Bob Slentz tells the council to consider the proposal carefully before the final vote next month. "We are not breaking any ground with this particular initiative. Douglas County, Lone Tree and I think Parker all have similar ordinances," he says, urging everyone to "use your experience, good judgment and common sense."
So I do. I phone J.J. McCormack, Castle Rock's community-relations liaison, to learn which intersections are at the epicenter of the epidemic now threatening the fine city of Castle Rock. I am going to venture into the belly of the beast -- as the beast.
Combing through my closet, I try to figure out what to wear. What would a homeless person do? For that matter, what would Jesus do? And when you really think about it, what's the difference between Jesus and a homeless person? Didn't Jesus just travel around, sleeping wherever he could find a spot, looking all beardy and granola? Isn't that what homeless people do? When I realize that I'm over-thinking this decision and also probably already going to hell, I settle on an old pair of ripped-up jeans, a waffled undershirt, a gray hoodie and a thick, green vest that my dad wore in the '70s. (He wasn't homeless then, but he did look like a down-on-his-luck Ozzy Osbourne, which is close.) I complete the ensemble with a torn and tattered beanie and some ugly white high-tops that a friend acquired from a drunken FILA rep one night. I haven't shaved for a week and I drank heavily last night; now I roll around in the mud for good measure. The result is a look I like to call "hobo-chic" -- the same defeated look you'd see on any Denver hipster if you took away his parents' credit card and then told him his favorite unknown indie band had just landed a song on The Real World.
Hobo-chic achieved, I need one last accessory: signs. A liquor-store clerk in Denver is kind enough to provide me with cardboard boxes and a blue marker, which I use to fashion three crude signs. The first message reads "Anything Helps" -- an oldie but a goodie that I'm eager to test. The next sign is a rhymer: "A few dollars for beer and I'll disappear." It's honest, and vaguely amusing. I want something really clever for the third; I've always been more inclined to give money to a panhandler who makes me laugh than one who makes me sad. This Christmas, for example, I was pulling off I-25 north onto Colorado Boulevard when I saw a man in a red Santa cap holding a sign that read "Ho Ho Homeless...and Disabled." I nearly emptied my wallet on the old bastard. Then again, I once saw a hobo with a sob-story sign about having been robbed and just trying to get money for a bus ticket back to Omaha, and it made me so sad that not only did I not give him any money, but I shivved him right in the back of the kneecap.
I need a hook. Since I'm headed halfway toward Colorado Springs, land of batshit insane evangelical Christians, I decide I'll commemorate a recent scandal in that town with "Ted Haggard Won't Return My Calls...Need $$$." Haggard, of course, is the former head of the New Life Church who fell from grace after he was outed by a male escort, who said the minister had not only bought his sexual services, but meth, too; the joke is that since Haggard has come to terms with his fuckup, the sign-bearer (read: male prostitute) has lost business and needs cash. Ha, ha! Who wouldn't give money to a homeless, hobo-chic guy with such audacity, such wit?
With the three signs in the back of my car, I hit the road. But as I near Castle Rock, I start to get nervous. I'm going to panhandle along the mean streets of Castle Rock. What if I get arrested? Worse, what if I land on an intersection that's some other guy's turf? Will he kick my ass? Some of the worst fights I've seen have been between homeless people, and we've all heard about the shrieking hobo knife-fights in which the winner not only flays the skin of the loser, but wears it all winter, both for added warmth and as a badge of honor.
I pull into the Walgreens parking lot at I-25 and Plum Creek, and am relieved to see that no panhandler is working this intersection -- even though the Castle Rock official had assured me that the spot was a haven for the homeless. As I carry my "Anything Helps" sign over to the corner and try to look pathetic, the sun disappears, clouds whip in across the foothills and snow starts to sprinkle. This is a sign from the heavens, I think, as car after car after car drives past. People are blatantly ignoring me, staring forward, blinders on: Oh, is there a homeless guy over there? Huh, I wouldn't know anything about it because I have absolutely no peripheral vision. In my previous life I was a horse that led carriage rides through Central Park, so I can only see straight ahead. Others were clearly overcompensating: What's that you say? There's a homeless guy in the intersection? Man, I'd love to acknowledge his existence, but here's the thing: Unless I bend over so that you can't see me from outside and stare into the tape deck, I can't change the station. Isn't that weird? I hear a lot of Hyundais have this quirk. What's that? Why am I still down here now that the radio has changed? It's so weird -- my cell phone only gets reception one foot from the floor of the car. I know, it must be Verizon or something. Some "network," right? Yeah, anyway, I'm just going to stay down here for a while...oh, light's green! Off we go. Too bad, because I would have totally helped out that homeless dude back there if I hadn't have been so busy.
I stand here for twenty minutes, enduring these people ignoring me. Two Douglas County Sheriff's Department vehicles also drive by and ignore me.
Finally, a car pulls up and the driver rolls down her window. As I trot into the street, she takes a spray bottle and gives her filthy windshield a couple of squirts, then turns on the wipers and drives off. Fucking tease!
After being invisible for another twenty minutes, I switch to the "A few dollars for beer and I'll disappear" sign. I figure some people might appreciate the honest approach -- but evidently, messages of this nature just make people feel like they are entitled to not give you money. You're just another wino, and no, they're not going to aid your addiction.
It's time to pull out the big gun.
Standing with my "Ted Haggard Won't Return My Calls" sign, I immediately feel better about what I'm doing. I have a funny message that I'm proud of, and even though I'm down on my luck, maybe old homeless Adam can brighten someone's day with a chuckle or two. Ha, ha, man, that Haggard was a freak, huh?
Several cars do slow as drivers take note of the sign and laugh. One driver even slaps a passenger on the shoulder and points to the sign. Nobody gives me any money, but at least they aren't ignoring me.
Then a beat-up brown Chevy pulls up. The fat, mustachioed driver who looks vaguely like Super Mario reads over my sign carefully, his lips moving with every word, and when he finally finishes, his face explodes into several violent and oddly beautiful shades of crimson. He points out the sign to his wife, and she appears just as flustered. In the back seat, two young children, a boy and a girl, start looking around, their craniums swiveling like bobbleheads as they try to determine what's triggered the change in the collective mood inside the car. Then the father rolls down the window.
"You think you're so fucking funny," Super Mario yells, fresh flecks of spittle escaping his mouth. "You fucking asshole! You fucking piece of shit. You fucking disrespectful fuck!"
Fuck, fuck, shit, damn, ass, fuck -- the man belches a neighborhood's worth of swear jars at me as I stand there with my Haggard sign at the intersection, saying nothing, doing nothing, just taking it. It's amazing how quickly the avoiding-eye-contact table has turned.
Mercifully, the light changes from red to green and the man zooms off, still swearing, still spitting, and now revealing a silver Jesus fish on the back of his Chevy.
Easy, fella, I think. Suck your minister's cock with that mouth?
I've had enough of this spot, and at 2 p.m. I move on. I drive toward another alleged panhandling mecca, the Benders Meadows exit off I-25, and spot someone soliciting at the intersection. I'm about to have my first panhandler-to-panhandler interaction! But as I get closer, I see that it's a pale-faced Castle Rock teenager wearing one of those jester snowboarding hats and trying to get a ride to Colorado Springs for a concert. Poor bastard probably just read On the Road for the first time and in his naive little mind thinks that hitchhiking now will prevent him from working at the Denver Tech Center in ten years.
I was once like him.
I move on to the median at the intersection of Bender Meadows Boulevard and Factory Outlet Road, another reported homeless hot spot. It's freezing. The snow is coming down steadily, and the wind blows sideways right into my eyes, trapping itself in my swarthy, hobo-chic beard. I watch shoppers leave the Factory Outlet parking lot, their fancy Suburbans stuffed with bags of crap to take back to their warm homes, give to their happy families. Goddamn capitalists.
No one gives me anything. Not for "Anything Helps," not for Haggard, not for beers. But on the bright side, all this standing around is great for bird-watching. In addition to the enormous ravens that haunt the Factory Outlet stores, I watch an American Kestrel circle the parking lot and, far off in the distance, spy what looks like a prairie falcon setting down on top of a light pole to survey the scene. It strikes me that I could use the birds for my hook; I could be the weird-bird homeless guy! You know, the guy always out there with binoculars, jotting down the birds he sees in his little notebook between rounds of begging and masturbating. I remember someone telling me that bird-feather hats are supposed to be big this fashion season, and I think, damn, two birds with one hobo. I could get rich off of this.
Then a car honks and snaps me out of my daydream. I run over to the Civic, which is filled with a bunch of cool-looking high school kids wearing rhinestone belts, jean jackets, band T-shirts.
"Hey, man," one of them asks. "You want some chips?"
Sure, I say, and the kid hands me a bag of Lays Classics. Another kid unearths a second bag. I take them both and stuff them in my vest pocket.
"God bless," I say, heading back to my median.
By now the wind has picked up something fierce, and when a train bellows in the distance, I take it as a closing whistle. I hurry back to my car, turn the heater on high and head back to my home in Denver. But I can't help wondering what I would do if I were actually homeless, standing in the bitter cold of Castle Rock with no money and just two bags of chips for provisions.
Although Castle Rock's attorney has cited Parker as a place that prohibits panhandling, that comes as news to the Parker Police Department. "That hasn't been something that we have to address," says a sergeant there.
In 2002, the Douglas County Commissioners did prohibit soliciting occupants of vehicles in roadways, and while the Castle Rock Police Department oversees that town's streets, the Douglas County Sheriff's Department is responsible for keeping panhandlers away from other roadways, particularly in unincorporated, well-to-do communities like Highlands Ranch and Stonegate, areas that encompass around 65 percent of the county. "Do we have as many panhandlers as Denver?" says Douglas County Deputy Ron Hanavan. "No. But do we have panhandlers? Sure. I think it comes back to a safety issue. If someone is standing in the middle of the road, or the side of the road, where they are relying on a light that is red and walking in between traffic, it's just not safe."
Denver is in year three of Denver's Road Home, a ten-year project to end homelessness in this city; according to the most recent count, there are now 4,400 homeless people on any given night in Denver, and 10,000 in the metro area overall -- a number that's shrunk from previous counts.
How many of those homeless panhandle? A Road Home survey found that over 40 percent of the people living in shelters are working, and only 10 percent of those surveyed ever panhandle. In the first nine months of 2006, the Denver Police Department made 215 arrests for begging. Eighty-two of those arrests, or more than a third, were made on or near the 16th Street Mall. But that figure is down from 2005, when 104 people were arrested around the mall during the same time period.
Last year, Denver City Council passed ordinances making it illegal to sit or lie in a downtown right-of-way from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., to panhandle within twenty feet of a sidewalk eatery, or to enter any traffic lane in order to beg. Still, panhandling and the homeless are viewed as Denver's number-one problem by out-of-towners checking out the Queen City of the Plains.
"Generally, Denver receives outstanding reviews from outside visitors across the board," says Richard Scharf, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The one area where we do see negative comments is regarding the amount of homeless people along the 16th Street Mall. It's discouraging, because once a city gets that reputation, it can take a long time to overcome. We have been making some real improvements, but because the 16th Street Mall is situated how it is, there can be six people out panhandling on a given day, and the average tourist is going to be hit up along that mall by all six. It gives them the wrong perception, but for the average visitor, perception is reality."
The Downtown Denver Partnership has been studying how to deal with both the perception and the reality. It's important to note that there's a difference between being homeless and panhandling, the Partnership's Sarah McClean points out. That's why the city is tackling the situation on two fronts. First, it's dealing with the reality of homelessness by working to get those people off the streets, providing the services needed to get their lives back on track. And second, it's encouraging residents to discourage panhandlers -- which, in turn, would remove the perception.
And that means not giving money to the sign-flyers dotting the city's intersections. When the Partnership did its own survey, it found that Denverites donate $4.5 million a year to panhandlers.
"We don't want people to stop giving completely," McClean says. "We just want them to give to shelters and places where ultimately they will have some sort of guarantee where that money will be used."
"Denver's a really generous city," says Jamie Van Leeuwan, project manager of Denver's Road Home. "We want to educate people that there are better ways to help the homeless."
"We generally support giving to organizations that are going to provide resources," adds Doug Wayland, director of education and advocacy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "But the community should conscientiously try to have alternatives for them as well. And in some cases with panhandlers, it's a judgment call. If you want to give them money, that's your call."
It's a call that I hope Denver makes.
At 1 p.m. the day after my Castle Rock experience, I'm on the infamous 16th Street Mall, the place those suburb-dwellers fear so much. I've heard of you, you vile, wretched street. And just what, exactly, is the point of your Hard Rock Cafe?
I set up shop in between Stout and California, directly outside an H&R Block in case I am seized by a sudden, insatiable urge to do my taxes, eschewing my homeless ways once and for all. I start out with "Anything Helps" and watch the passersby pass by. It's a whole different ball game ignoring someone without the protection of a motor vehicle. In a pedestrian-walkway situation, people are way more susceptible to your panhandler advances. Everyone takes note of my sign, everyone looks at me in my dire situation; it's impossible not to. But still, nobody gives me any money. I suppose I could mutter the stereotypical "Spare some change?" line, using a 1940s detective voice just to amuse myself -- but I'm a respectful panhandler. I speak when spoken to and otherwise let my sign do the talking.
Another homeless man walks up, looks at me briefly, quizzically, then dives headfirst into a trash can. Finding nothing, he emerges from the sea of refuse and passes me by again, this time giving me the evil eye. Something in his glare reveals that he is a few cans short of a shopping cart. When someone in your immediate vicinity is crazy, you keep an eye on him. I watch as he hovers around California for a minute, then turns and walks by me once again, with a fresh evil eye. Then he stops, turns.
In several impressive leaps, the man is suddenly in my face, screaming unintelligibly at top volume. His tirade is a string of nonsensical transient babble, punctuated by the repeated usage of the one phrase I can decipher: "hound dog." Hound dog, hound dog, hound dog! I step away from Hound Dog, but he persists, absolutely livid. Perhaps this is his turf; perhaps this is his imaginary friend Hound Dog's turf. Whatever, I have clearly transgressed. I try to come up with some sort of apology, but Hound Dog is having none of it and continues barking. Terrified, I sprint away down the 16th Street Mall, much to the disappointment of the gathering crowd that is hoping to see a real bum-fight.
About a block down the way, a Denver police officer pulls up and tells me to "take it off the mall," which I happily do.
At 2:15, I set up shop at the intersection of Speer Boulevard and Auraria Parkway. I have a new sign, something folksy, something everyman, to let commuters know that I'm not a bad panhandler, I'm really an all-right kind of guy. I hold up "Potholes swallowed my home...need $$$" -- and miraculously, it works. I've only been standing on this grassy knoll a few minutes when a man with a head like a smokestack pulls up and hands me a five-dollar bill without saying a word. Five bucks! This way beats seeing that prairie falcon! It's almost as cool as seeing a peregrine falcon! Almost. And like that, the floodgates open.
I don't know if it's the pothole sign striking a nerve with Denver drivers or just my undeniable good looks, but over the course of the next forty minutes, I can't lose. Old women, young men, soccer moms, hipsters with plastic bags instead of windows, they all give me at least a dollar. No one hands me change; it's all crisp bills, sometimes several of them. By 3 p.m., I've got twelve bucks!
I decide to test my panhandler mojo at a new location, and remove myself to the intersection of Santa Fe and Colfax. Within twenty minutes, I've made another four bucks. Sixteen dollars in an hour is not too shabby, if I do say so myself. But I'm tired of saying so myself, so I decide to ask a few actual panhandlers to evaluate my performance.
I first attempt to chat with a guy at Speer and Colfax, a Hemingway-looking fellow I often see feeding the pigeons. I approach and ask if I can ask him a couple of questions. He stares at me with bloodshot eyes and shakes his head back and forth, no. I move on to John, a 43-year-old from Texas who is working an intersection not far from my hot spot. John tells me that he usually panhandles until he earns enough money to cover his $15 hepatitis C injection at Denver Health. I ask if he has to get one every day, but John either ignores the question or does not hear it. He tells me that he does not drink, that he does not do drugs, that he's just out here trying to make enough money to treat his sickness. I ask about his biggest score; he says it was $75 in one hit. I ask if any of the other panhandlers are territorial about their spots; he says only the drunks. I ask if Hemingway the pigeon-feeder is a drunk; he says he is. I give John about half of my earnings from the day and move on.
The next panhandler I talk to is across the street from Hemingway the pigeon-feeder. This guy won't give me his name, but he tells me that the media has got the homeless thing all wrong. "They say not to give money to homeless people, to give it to charities and that they'll give it to the people, but that's bullshit," he says. "I'm out here, I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I'm a veteran. What's wrong with giving me some change?"
I ask him what he would do with that change, but he doesn't reply. I give him the remainder of the money I made panhandling and hope he's not dumb enough to spend it on bus fare to Castle Rock.
The next day, as I drive to work, I pull up to the intersection of Sixth and Lincoln, where a panhandler is holding a sign about being a Native American down on his luck and needing some help. I instinctively go into over-compensator mode, playing with my CD player, holding the button down to fast-forward the CD as if there is something crucially important that I have to hear right now. I catch myself doing this and feel like a prick. I give the guy a dollar. He says, "God bless," and I drive on, smiling.
About an hour later, I get a text from a girl I know.
"This is going to sound weird," it reads, "but did I see you...panhandling?"
"That was me," I respond. "It was for a story."
She never replies.
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