Cover Story: Aid groups, lawmakers and leaders work to define panhandling while protecting some of our city’s most in-need residents 

click to enlarge (Illustrations by Christopher Street)
  • Illustrations by Christopher Street

Rev. Tom Jones has heard all the stereotypes surrounding the homeless: They’re addicts, lawbreakers, lazy and desire the vagrant lifestyle.

When many in the community see a homeless person, they see someone poorly dressed, in need of a shower and perhaps acting out or appearing intoxicated. It’s a heartbreaking sight.

The stereotypes don’t factor into the City Rescue Mission president’s mind. Over the past eight years, Jones has heard many stories from clients. At times, addiction or mental health contributed to homelessness, as could the loss of a family member, job or a divorce. No one aspires to live on the streets.

That’s what Jones and others remind new clients as they work to help them overcome traumatic experiences.

“We can help people rise above where they think they have to live the rest of their lives,” Jones said. “No one has ever helped them connect the dots before.”

click to enlarge Tom Jones, left, and his son Adam Jones of the City Rescue Mission, chat with Marilyn Bond, a Choctaw Native American homeless woman, preparing with help from City Rescue Misson, to attend the Mayor's Breakfast, by invitation from Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal, to be held in Norman on January 18th, 1-7-16, in the Women's section of City Rescue Mission in Downtown OKC. - MARK HANCOCK
  • Mark Hancock
  • Tom Jones, left, and his son Adam Jones of the City Rescue Mission, chat with Marilyn Bond, a Choctaw Native American homeless woman, preparing with help from City Rescue Misson, to attend the Mayor's Breakfast, by invitation from Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal, to be held in Norman on January 18th, 1-7-16, in the Women's section of City Rescue Mission in Downtown OKC.

Professional panhandlers

However, not everyone on the streets wants to connect the dots. Some just want cash. That’s why staff at City Rescue Mission and Homeless Alliance agree that, contrary to common belief, not all homeless people are street solicitors.

As nonprofits such as Homeless Alliance and City Rescue Mission make strides to reduce or defeat homelessness, panhandlers continue to camp at some of Oklahoma City’s busiest intersections.

“They panhandle because it works,” Dan Straughan, Homeless Alliance executive director, said of many people who support the practice. “People are generous, and they want to help.”

The aid of a couple of dollars too often goes into the hands of “professional” beggars, or people who travel coast-to-coast and stop in Oklahoma City to benefit from generous residents, Jones said. He estimated about 90 percent of local panhandlers are not from Oklahoma.

On visits to Los Angeles, he witnessed the same people at intersections there.

“They see me, and they know me by name,” Jones said of an encounter in LA. “They don’t like seeing me pull up.”

A year ago, a resident of the local Las Vegas neighborhood noticed a spike in the number of people begging at the intersection of NW 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The location was known as a prime spot for a panhandler or two, but a recent influx of sign-carrying solicitors were aggressive toward drivers and with each other over turf.

“It was inundated with professional panhandlers,” said Constance, who requested her full name not be used in this article. “It wasn’t safe to go to most businesses on that corner, as you got aggressively panhandled.”

Other residents noticed, too. Neighbors took to the Nextdoor app and called City Hall to share encounters.

click to enlarge Dan Straughan speaks inside the Homeless Alliance day center Dan Straughan speaks inside the Homeless Alliance day center. (Mark Hancock)
  • Mark Hancock
  • Dan Straughan speaks inside the Homeless Alliance day center Dan Straughan speaks inside the Homeless Alliance day center.

Safety ordinance

Councilwoman Meg Salyer received phone calls about the panhandlers at NW 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. She also heard about activity at other intersections. Begging on city medians was a citywide issue and motivated her to propose a median ordinance in September.

Her proposal evolved during a three-month period and was hotly debated. In three Oklahoma City Council meetings,

citizens voiced concerns over the proposed law’s impact on indigent people, especially those who rely on funds collected from street soliciting. Others believed it might violate free speech protections.

Leaders, including Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, stressed the hazards of working in medians.

In December, the bill was renamed as a median safety ordinance. Approved by the council, it outlaws standing, siting or staying on city medians less than 30 feet wide when within 200 feet of intersections. The law exempts medians wider than 30 feet or ones that feature benches, gazebos, park equipment or trails.

“The medians are dangerous for both pedestrians and drivers,” Salyer told Oklahoma Gazette. “This wasn’t directed at a single population. We have school and church groups on medians. It really came down to keeping people safe.”

She said the law does not ban panhandling or street soliciting. Instead, it moves the practice to other locations.

Panhandlers prefer city medians because they put them in the path of potential donors, said Rev. Robin Meyers, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational UCC Church of Oklahoma City. He said the ordinance was a “cleanup measure” to move unsightly and impoverished people away from the view of drivers.

“The people who beg are going to find another place to beg, and it will be more dangerous,” Meyers said.

He predicted drivers will see solicitors stepping into roads from street corners to collect donations. He believes entering a roadway is more dangerous than standing on a raised street median.

Handout or hand up?

Like many, Meyers is troubled when a panhandler approaches him. No one wants others to go hungry. The scenario  presents a dilemma: Give because the person needs help or refrain because they might be a fraud?

“It is not our responsibility to withhold a gift we would otherwise give because we are afraid of what the recipient will do with it,” Meyers said of a theory he heard from a Jesuit priest.

City Rescue Mission staff said there is an alternative to cash. The group’s compassion card is a direct line to receive a meal, shower, clothing or a place to stay and features a phone number to call for a ride. Jones said the cards garnered less than 10 phone calls.

“Be assured that the guy on the corner who throws the card [at passers-by] is not hungry and not homeless,” Jones said. “He would be all over this if what he had on his sign was true. … If the community would rally together to give the card instead of cash, it would take care of the panhandling.”

Homeless Alliance operated a similar program that offered bus rides to a local shelter. Few sought the transport.

“It is not uncommon among panhandlers to want to fly the sign,” Straughan said. “I’ve heard some say they feel they are earning their handout.”

Alternatives to homelessness

While some argue the median safety law will be harmful, others see opportunities to redirect panhandler dollars to social services agencies.

Salyer said input from the public and private social service groups while developing the law raised awareness about complicated issues surrounding homelessness.

“Oklahoma City has social services and faith-based organizations in every corner of this community to help people in need,” Salyer said. “People are ready to help.”

The work of the organizations contributed to the decline of the city’s homeless population over the last two years. Based on data from the Point in Time count survey, 1,300 people experienced homelessness in 2015, a decrease by 12 percent from 2014.

The annual count happens Jan. 28 as nonprofits survey clients and visit homeless camps to garner a snapshot of the population.

At City Rescue Mission, caseworkers and staff help adults and families through its Bridge to Life program, which provides housing, employment, education and recovery aid. In 2015, the faith-based group helped nearly 500 people obtain stable housing.

“We can put a plan together that not only changes their life, but their children’s and grandchildren’s,” Jones said. “It happened because someone stopped long enough to say, ‘Hey, let’s talk.’”

Staff and volunteers also help at WestTown Homeless Resource Campus, home to varied social services and a day center. One such agency is Journey Home OKC, an initiative by more than 40 nonprofits, government and faith-based agencies to eradicate homelessness in the chronic and veteran populations.

In 2015, Journey Home OKC placed 262 veterans and 129 chronic homeless people into housing.

“There is no single agency that can address all the issues of homelessness,” Straughan said. “We don’t want a person falling through the cracks.”

click to enlarge Gary "Cowboy" Fields, a Curbside Chronicle vendor, on the median at Broadway Avenue and N.W. 23rd Street, the last day before city ordinance prohibiting panhandling from medians like this, takes effect, 1-6-16. - MARK HANCOCK
  • Mark Hancock
  • Gary "Cowboy" Fields, a Curbside Chronicle vendor, on the median at Broadway Avenue and N.W. 23rd Street, the last day before city ordinance prohibiting panhandling from medians like this, takes effect, 1-6-16.

Walk on

Dressed in boots, khaki coveralls and a traditional black cowboy hat, Gary “Cowboy” Fields looked ready to saddle a horse and herd cattle on a brisk and cloudy early January morning.

Walking slowly and carefully along the median on NW 23rd Street and Broadway Avenue, he held a sign sharing his philosophy.

As a vendor for The Curbside Chronicle, he seeks “a hand up, not a handout.” For the past two years, Fields has sold the street magazine at the bustling intersection. On good days, he leaves with $100 profit.

“A lot of good people come and buy my magazine,” Fields said. “I’ve known them since I’ve been selling.”

Before he sold for the Chronicle, he was homeless. A native of southwest Oklahoma City, Fields turned his red pickup truck into his home. During the day, he traveled the streets, looking for metal to sell or odd jobs to perform. He said he never panhandled. After a year without a steady job and sleeping in his truck with his dog, Ace Domino, he decided he needed to make a change.

Through a Chronicle vendor, he learned about the magazine and its program to help homeless people earn an income. Vendors, many of them former panhandlers, sell the latest issue from street medians and keep a portion from each sale. The monthly publication features stories, often written by displaced people, and covers social issues related to homelessness and news about local artists, people and business.

The program, housed at the Homeless Alliance, helped Fields earn enough money to rent an apartment. He sustains his home with funds he earns from selling the Chronicle. He pays utilities and buys groceries, including dog food for Ace Domino and Little Bit, who recently joined his household.

Jan. 6, Fields entered his typical work route, visiting Carl’s Jr. for breakfast before taking his spot on the median.

“Today is my last day on the median. It makes me feel bad,” he said in a horse voice. “There are a lot of good people around here. People have asked me where I will be tomorrow. I’ve said I don’t know.”

His uncertainty stems from a new safety ordinance prohibiting people from standing, sitting or staying in city medians less than 30 feet wide when within 200 feet of an intersection. Fields has witnessed accidents in the intersection and one traffic sign hit by motorists. Overall, however, he doesn’t agree with the law, which took effect Jan. 7. It directly impacts his job.

Rayna O’Connor, Chronicle editor-in-chief, said the statute pushes vendors to sidewalks, which are difficult spots to make sales. Now, they sell to the passenger side of vehicles, but to complete the exchange, vendors can’t enter the roadway. It is illegal for them to step into the road.

Magazine leaders hoped to partner with local businesses to relocate solicitors into popular shopping areas and store entrances. So far, no business owner has agreed to work with the publication.

Fields is concerned about his regulars finding him. He plans to stop by the Paseo Arts District and encouraged customers to visit the magazine’s Facebook page for updates on vendor locations.

“Passing this law isn’t going to shut me down,” he said. “I like my job.”

Not every vendor shared his optimism. There is anxiety among many that magazine sales will drop and they will go back to “flying a sign,” street lingo for panhandling.

“It’s been hard for me to hear,” O’Connor said. “We are not in a position for that to happen right now. Vendors will stick with The Curbside Chronicle as long as we are around. Right now, we are figuring this out.”

How and why


1. The trade

Even though it might seem simple, panhandling can be a tough gig. There is no tangible product or service exchanged as dollars pass between hands. There is no way to predict collection numbers in advance. Why would someone panhandle? Often, some believe it is their only option to survive. They exhausted other options and now rely on the financial graces of others, said Rev. Robin Meyers of Mayflower Congregational UCC Church of Oklahoma City.

“To beg in public means you have foregone any shame,” Meyers said. “People are looking at you. You can’t keep your identity a secret. It requires a great deal of desperation to beg people for money.”


2. Location, location It’s an old, hackneyed real estate phrase, but it is an essential aspect of panhandling, too. Opportunities to collect money are best where there are pedestrians or motorists. When in traffic or waiting at a light, drivers can look away. However, that’s more difficult when stopped in the left turn lane and they’re approached by someone in the median.

Medians are prime real estate for panhandlers, said The Curbside Chronicle vendor Gary Fields, who previously sold magazines from medians. Fields is an independent contractor who earns income by selling the street paper. While not a panhandler, Fields recalled conversations with those who were and sought his spot at NW 23rd Street and Broadway Avenue.

“I get into arguments with panhandlers,” Fields said earlier this month as he stood on the median. “I always ask the panhandlers why they can’t work that corner over there. They want this spot.”

Dan Straughan, Homeless Alliance executive director, agreed.

“The reason panhandlers like the medians is that it gives them closer contact with potential donors,” Straughan said. “If you take the venue away from them, they will look for other venues that give them closer contact.”


3. Strong message

Panhandlers often make their pitches through cardboard signs. Some say they want money to buy food or need a place to stay. Others admit to drivers they want funds to purchase alcohol. No matter what the sign says, City Rescue Mission leader Rev. Tom Jones said, it could be misleading in some respect.

The mission operates a ride service to pick up panhandlers and homeless individuals in need of a meal, shower, clothing and a bed. He said very few take the ride.

“They are telling you — in hopes of touching your compassionate side — ‘I am hungry, I am homeless, I am dirty,’” said Jones, who explained panhandlers often turn down offers of help because they want cash. “They are not really hungry, and they are not really homeless.”


4. Audience

Panhandlers intimidate some people and make others feel uncomfortable, provoking sympathy.

Meyers said it’s difficult to look a panhandler in the eyes.

“It could be us,” Meyers said. “We could be looking at ourselves if something had gone differently — if we didn’t grow up in an intact family, didn’t get access to mental health care or didn’t work for a company that shipped jobs oversees. We might have fallen through the cracks. People fall through the cracks. At some point, all of us are capable of ending up at a public spot and begging because we are just trying to get the next meal.”

Print Headline: Giving change, Local aid groups, lawmakers and leaders work together to define panhandling while protecting some of our city’s most in-need residents.
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