“Panhandling – the picture tells the story.”
That was the subject line of a photo a reader emailed to The Modesto Bee of a man – cardboard sign in hand indicating he is homeless and hungry – standing right next to a metal sign that states panhandling, soliciting and begging are prohibited in certain areas of Modesto.
The man’s eyes are fixed on the photographer, a bag of recyclables in the background; he likely knows he’s in violation of at least one of the laws listed on the sign. Standing at Fifth and G streets, he was in violation of begging within 100 feet of an intersection equipped with a traffic signal.
But the sign is not as much for him as it is for the people thinking about giving money to him, said Modesto Police Department spokeswoman Heather Graves.
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Some might give out of sympathy, but others might feel pressured in what the law describes as a “captive audience” situation. That audience includes people stopped at a traffic signal, eating dinner on an outdoor patio or lined up for a movie; it “restricts residents’ ability to decline or avoid solicitation,” reads the Modesto ordinance.
Graves said the city began installing the signs in October in downtown, in the entrances to shopping centers and near Highway 99 onramps and offramps to discourage people from giving money to those who are begging.
Ten signs were installed then, and after receiving positive feedback from some business owners, the city a few months later purchased and installed 10 more.
A Manteca Bulletin column last month talked about Modesto’s signs after one of their readers suggested Modesto was doing a better job of addressing the problem of panhandling by installing them.
About a year ago, Manteca city officials decided similar signs would give visitors the wrong impression of Manteca, according to the column, which also points out that seeing people actually participate in the act gives a worse impression.
Modesto officials hope the signs give some people pause about handing out cash by learning that begging in many places is illegal. But Modesto police Sgt. Gary Crawford said officers also have been stepping up enforcement over the past few years.
He understands and appreciates that people want to help those who are less fortunate. No decent human being wants to see another go hungry.
But the truth, Crawford said, is that the homeless in Modesto have ample opportunity to get free meals throughout the day. The Salvation Army serves breakfast, Crosspoint Community Church serves dinner and the Modesto Gospel Mission serves both every day. There are also eight locations at which one can get a free lunch between 11:45 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
When Crawford cites people for panhandling and asks them why they do it, the most common answer is that they need the money for food.
But when he hands them the pamphlet with the list of every free meal in Modesto, time and location as well as other services for homeless and presses them further, many of them admit they use the money to buy drugs and alcohol
“They do it for 20 or 30 minutes, just stay until they can get a $1.50 for tall can of beer or $2.25 for a 200 milliliter vodka,” Crawford said. “I have followed them from panhandling right to the liquor store.”
He said those with heroin addictions typically spend between $40 and $50 a day to get high, but he recently met a man panhandling not far from where our reader’s photo was taken who said he’d been addicted to heroin for 25 years. He had a $100-a-day habit.
“I get out my calculator and start doing the math. In the beginning he used less, about $40 a day, but in the past 25 years he’d spent (more than) $900,000 on heroin,” Crawford said. “He was just as shocked as I was; he had no clue he’d spent almost $1 million on his addiction.”
Some people beg just long enough to support their addictions; others make a living out of it.
Crawford said he met a man at the Crossroads Shopping Center on Carpenter Road who said he makes $300 to $400 a day panhandling for about 10 hours.
In April two Romanian nationals were cited for panhandling in Modesto parking lots with their wives and young children in a case very similar to one in 2014. “Self-proclaimed Romanian Gypsies” came to Modesto using “an organized list of locations in various cities throughout the Central Valley to panhandle for their family’s income,” according to a news release from Graves in 2014.
In all three cases, the Romanians came from the Sacramento area, used their children to garner sympathy, and told a sad story about their circumstances. One family said they were abandoned in Modesto by a man who brought them to the city to paint houses. Another said their car was out of gas, but the officer checked and found it had three-quarters of a tank.
But a notable difference is the couple in 2014 had received nearly $400 in just a few hours before they were contacted by police, while in April passersby more quickly called police and the families got much less money.
Perhaps the people who called police were familiar with the story from 2014 or of several other stories involving people panhandling under the guise that they had a sick child or a child who died and they couldn’t afford to bury.
So the signs are just another tool to educate the public to consider they could be falling prey to a scam or enabling an addiction.
Graves said the goal is not to suppress people’s goodwill, but she encourages them to instead give to reputable charities like the ones that feed, clothe and shelter the homeless.
“If everyone stopped giving to panhandlers, would the problem go away?” Crawford echoed my question to him. “Probably they would have to go find some other way to get that money. For some it might be crime; for others, it might force them to get into treatment. As long as it is a way to survive without getting into (rehabilitation) programs, they will do it.”