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Panhandling in St. Louis could soon see more regulation

Sherry Branham, 55, panhandles at the eastbound I-64 exit ramp onto Grand Blvd.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Sherry Branham, 55, asks passers-by for money at the eastbound I-64 exit ramp onto Grand Blvd.

Morning rush hour brings lots of cars to the I-64/Highway 40 exit ramp on Grand Boulevard. Most pass Sherry Branham by without pause, unheeding of her cardboard call for help.

But then a car honks and the driver leans out of her window to hand Branham a plastic bag.

Branham’s stocking-cap-covered head leans over the bag, and her voice gets muffled as she checks its contents.

“Let’s see, what did she give me today? Oh, a banana, and a yogurt, and a bottle of water and some handy wipes and let’s see, maybe $5. Yep. $5. She’s a sweetheart,” the grey-haired, 55-year-old said.

Branham says she’s been panhandling — asking strangers for money or food — for a while now. It all began after she underwent major surgery for a broken back and lost her home while she was in a hospital recovering. She says the plan was for her to go into a nursing home when she was released from the hospital, but her initial applications for Medicaid and disability benefits were denied.

“I’ve got appeals filed, I’m hoping to get a date soon to go to court and get it straightened out, but in the meantime how do you survive?” Branham asked.

Branham says she's been homeless and waiting for her appeals for eight months now.  

Panhandlers like Branham are a common sight in St. Louis. They can be seen at exit ramps and gas stations and found everywhere from the Central West End to downtown. Even in St. Louis County.

Deciding the best way to respond has been an ongoing challenge for the city as it attempts to balance needs and perceptions with freedom of speech and public safety.  

Now the city could be changing its panhandling policy once more. Newly appointed human services director Eddie Roth is taking a look at the policy after hearing from people who say panhandling is on the rise.

Eddie Roth was appointed director of human services by Mayor Slay in December 2014.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Eddie Roth was appointed director of human services by Mayor Slay in December 2014.

Roth also sees examining the policy as a good entry-point for his new role, saying that “to understand panhandling is to understand homelessness.”

Panhandling as a business

One of Roth's ideas is to register those making a living from panhandling as tax-paying businesses.

“I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I think if that’s how you’re going to make a living — and you have a right to do it — than you should be regulated in that way,” Roth said.

Although he’s not certain yet that people are able to make a living through panhandling, Roth said that he believed some people who panhandle aren’t truly in need. And those are the ones he wants to register as businesses.

Help those who need help

Roth plans to connect the rest of the panhandlers to help, so that the homeless find homes, the unemployed find work, and those who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs get treatment.

“It’s not enough to just move people along. The way you address this in a lasting way is a social component too,” Roth said.

Keep panhandling pedestrians away from traffic

Another area of concern for Roth is the proximity of some panhandlers to traffic, like those who station themselves on medians and exit ramps. He worries that a panhandler could get hit by a car and said he wants to make better use of existing traffic laws to keep them safe.

"There are plenty of venues where people can express themselves without standing on highway exits and wandering down the street where they might be missed by a motorist an have a tragedy ensue," Roth explained.

Why do panhandlers ask for money? What's the best response? Citizens weigh in.

Many panhandlers say they’re homeless, but not all homeless St. Louisans panhandle.

Standing outside New Life Evangelistic Center one evening, James Weaver said he doesn’t ask  people for money. Instead he takes advantage of the meals offered by various local agencies and stays at New Life’s shelter to get by. Still, he says he understands why some people ask strangers for money.

“I think those who really oppose panhandling just have not experienced different things. And so their views on panhandling are different than people who have been on the other side of that line and have needed it,” Weaver said.

Edward Little sells copies of "What's Up Magazine" instead of asking for money. He says he can get as much as $60 on a good day from selling the computer printouts detailing news of the homeless.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Edward Little sells copies of "What's Up Magazine" instead of asking for money. He says he can get as much as $60 on a good day from selling the computer printouts detailing news of the homeless.

Panhandlers interviewed for this story said that some St. Louisans can be generous, but many don’t give. Some St. Louisans contacted for their perspective said they give money to panhandlers. But several others said skepticism stops them from giving.

For St. Louis resident Kevin Wilson, a past encounter with someone who didn’t seem truly hungry makes him wonder whether panhandlers are trying to con him.

“If there was some way to determine just by looking at someone whether they really needed help or not, I probably would reach into my pocket and help them. But that doubt keeps my hand out of my pocket,” Wilson said.

Wilson said he doesn’t feel guilty about not giving, however, because he gives money to his church and pays his taxes, which in turn fund the government and his church’s social service programs.

Rebecca Melander of Clayton said she gives money to panhandlers sometimes to help her children understand generosity.

She said she hopes doing so helps her children “feel some sort of compassion” but she also wants to teach them that “it doesn’t ultimately help someone if you just give them dollars here and there all the time.”

So Melander also gives to charities because she sees that as a more organized way to make a tangible difference.

In a response to a query on St. Louis Public Radio’s Public Insight Network, Shawn Baldwin wrote that he gives money to panhandlers because “if they spend that money on self-destructive behaviors that is on them … I’d rather give to someone who’d cheat me of a few dollars than risk the possibility of not giving to those who might be in sincere need.”

Aggressive panhandling: An ordinance and a concern

In February in the Central West End, a panhandler who wouldn’t take no for an answer assaulted and robbed a man. 

The city calls such behavior “aggressive begging” and has a law against it on the books.

Roth said he plans to speak to police and see what their interactions with panhandlers have been like since the city passed the ordinance in 2008.

But he doesn’t expect to find that they’re putting more energy into it than need be.

“I don’t think that the history of panhandling in St. Louis — the recent history — has been one of authorities being overbearing. I think if anything it’s been permissive,” he explained.

That level of permissiveness could soon change.  Roth is expected to share his findings with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay soon.

This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.