Roadside panhandlers flock to tornado disaster zone

CLARKSVILLE, IN (WAVE) - They claim to be homeless, jobless or down on their luck. They're popping up more and more at interstate exit ramps in southern Indiana, dashing through traffic and cashing in on compassion.

"This money ain't nothing to me," said one panhandler. "This is just what makes the world go round."

As part of our investigation, we watched the panhandler collect $41 in 30 minutes. The man told us he makes hundreds of dollars per day this way. His group drove their RV here from Alabama. They parked a block off Interstate 65.

When I asked the panhandler if police ever run them off, he said, "All the time. In Montgomery, Alabama they bring you to jail. No such thing as a ticket."

The ticket to big bucks these days is to stand at an interstate exit ramp in Clark County, Indiana, a disaster zone after a twister tore through on March 2 leaving hundreds of people homeless or hopeless. So who are these people collecting money? Some of them stand just 50 yards away from a disaster recovery center.

We noticed most of them get dropped off and picked back up later. Many take TARC buses. Some travel two hours each way, including bus transfers, to collect money in the disaster zone. One of the men we followed said he goes all the way to Indiana because people are nicer. But he admitted the disaster zone has something to do with it. So I asked him if it was a bit deceptive to stand along the road and ask for money when you have a place to live.

"Just because I have a place to live doesn't mean I haven't fallen on hard times," said the panhandler.

What do they spend the money on? We watched one woman change into a homeless-looking outfit, collect cash, and then head straight for the nearest liquor store where she bought a bottle of booze.

Another woman stood out in the road, rubbing her pregnant stomach, and collecting money. Police showed up, but they let her off the hook. Then someone brought her food. After they all left the scene, her boyfriend stepped out of his hiding place.

During the course of our investigation we repeatedly watched police chase panhandlers away. But they often just hid around the corner and went back to panhandling in the same spots minutes later. Clarksville police told us they do cite people for panhandling, but not very often.

The panhandler who drove to Clark County from Alabama said he has a job, but this way of making money is productive as well.

"There's a prayer we say every time we get out there," he said. "Lord, keep the police off us, keep us safe. Let us make the smiles and money we need for the day."

The Coalition for the Homeless produces and publishes The Louisville Street Tips booklet, which is intended to be a quick reference guide for those in immediate need of shelter or services. In addition, service providers can find the guide useful in providing referrals to the city's homeless population and others in need. Click here for a link to the Louisville Street Tips booklet.

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