It Shouldn’t be a Crime to be Hungry and Ask for Help

The criminalization of pan-handling, and its fines, keep those experiencing homelessness from improving their own life.

By Mary Stewart

I remember back when I was a child, my cousin was caught shoplifting. My grandmother called me into my bedroom and handed me $40. She explained that stealing was wrong and that if I ever needed anything, all I had to do was ask for it. I don’t think she ever dreamed that I would one day become homeless, having to ask for what I need as a panhandler on the street.

My first sign said, “Just became homeless due to Wilma. Please help.” I had recently lost my mobile home due to that vicious hurricane, and ended up sleeping on the floor of a crowded church after my FEMA funds had run out. 

I made $60 that day, but I didn’t continue to panhandle, I sought different opportunities to get back on my feet. However, after I lost custody of my oldest son, I simply gave up. I slept in tents, on sidewalks, and in empty moving vans for ten long years, and, once again, I supported myself by holding a cardboard sign on off-ramps, medians, and sidewalks.

Although I have never personally been arrested for panhandling, it has led to me incurring thousands of dollars in fines for “soliciting on the roadway” and “pedestrian on limited access facility”. 

Once, the Florida Highway Patrol issued me a notice to appear in court for failing to obey the order to stay off the ramps, and I spent a night in jail as a result.

Since the fines only impacted my driver’s license, they didn’t deter me from continuing to panhandle. I figured that I couldn’t even afford to eat, so why should I be concerned about driving a vehicle? Survival was the number one priority, and anyways, I could always ride the Palm Tran bus.

Then, last year, I had the opportunity to relocate to South Carolina and live at a relative’s house. There are no buses or Ubers in the small town of Campobello, though. 

I often struggled to get a ride to the grocery store and became more dependent on my in-laws than I would have liked to be. I tried to get connected with Vocational Rehabilitation for job placement, but they couldn’t help me because of my lack of transportation. 

Finally, I had a place to call home, but no access to transportation due to my panhandling fines in Florida. I was stuck, and the situation placed strain on my marriage.

Later I returned to Florida, and now I can ride the bus again, but I have moments where I long for my husband, a warm bed, and the fresh country air. I just know that I’ll never be able to make it in South Carolina until these panhandling fines have been paid off — $4,000 in fines that have only made it more difficult for me to get on my feet. 

In recent years, Palm Beach County has established an ordinance against panhandling. Under the current law, panhandlers can now face up to 60 days in jail for soliciting on roadways. And here I thought the fines were bad enough!

I’m always afraid that the wrong cop will see me and I will be hauled off in handcuffs, while my bag of textbooks is left abandoned on the side of the road.

In the past, I’ve been charged with both county and state panhandling violations, and issued notices to appear. My case involving the state statute was dismissed though after I successfully argued that the statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by unlawfully discriminating between solicitation for charity and other types of solicitation. 

However, the county ordinance was carefully worded to avoid the same issue. I pleaded guilty  to that case and accepted yet another fine. This continues to impact me today. 

I now write freelance to earn a little money to make it through the month, so I don’t have to panhandle as often, but overcoming homelessness and poverty is a long, uphill battle, and I still need to ask for help occasionally. 

From these past experiences, I dread going out with my sign. I’m always afraid that the wrong cop will see me and I will be hauled off in handcuffs, while my bag of textbooks is left abandoned on the side of the road. And this is a realistic fear.

I have several friends who have been taken straight to the county jail for peacefully holding a cardboard sign in the median. A few of them had their meager belongings lost or discarded by the police during their arrest. One friend spent ten days in jail, simply for begging for change. 

Now, some friends of mine have relocated, gone into homeless programs, or have begun working day labor in response to the tougher panhandling laws. This may have been the desired outcome when the legislature and commissioners tightened up on panhandling, but not all former panhandlers have been motivated to go on the straight and narrow. I personally know some former panhandlers who are now prostituting, shoplifting, burglarizing homes, and selling drugs to earn money to survive.

I admit that some panhandlers have made it bad for the rest of us by panhandling aggressively or while intoxicated. While it is true that many panhandlers do spend their money on booze and drugs, that isn’t the case with all of us. I’ve eaten, washed clothes, bought personal items, and paid for the bus with much of my donations, and many panhandlers do the same, but the stigma still exists.

Personally, I would rather see a junkie beg for change to get their next fix rather than break into somebody’s house, and that dollar given to an alcoholic may save their life by preventing them from going into dangerous withdrawals without medical supervision.

Sure, jobs, housing, and substance abuse treatment are the ideal, but it’s easier said than done, and there’s a waiting list for even basic homeless assistance in Palm Beach County. What are the destitute supposed to do in the meantime?

Unfortunately, until hearts and laws change, those who are down and out will continue to be subject to arrest merely for asking for help meeting their most basic needs, regardless of whether criminalizing poverty is right or wrong.

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