New law, citations having little effect on panhandlers

The hardest part about going undercover for a story on panhandling is not being undercover enough for panhandlers.
Updated: Jan. 14, 2020 at 6:37 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The hardest part about going undercover for a story on panhandling is not being undercover enough for panhandlers.

Even when we thought no one could see us, they kept coming up to my car window and asking for money.

All over Louisville, we saw people working for money the conventional ways by digging ditches or pouring concrete. But just a few feet away, we saw people asking for money. And they appeared to be making more per hour.

“About how much you get in an hour?” we asked one panhandler. “On good days you get $15 to $20,” he said.

“I’m talking to some; they’re making $15 to $30 an hour,” LMPD Downtown Area Patrol Commander Ron Heady said.

“I just got (a) cellphone with the money I’ve been panhandling,” another panhandler said.

Panhandlers in wheelchairs made more money. We watched one guy propped up on a walker each day getting lots of donations, but he didn’t appear to need the walker when he walked away as he dragged it along.

Business was so good at Brook and Broadway, rain or shine, morning, noon and night, that as soon as any of the people flanking both sides of the road leave, others immediately step in. Sometimes you’ll see two on the same downtown corners.

A couple years ago the courts ruled it your constitutional right to stand out on the sidewalks and ask for money, which rendered Louisville’s panhandling laws useless. So a few months ago, Metro Council came at it from a different angle by passing a pedestrian safety ordinance. Under that law, panhandlers can ask for money on the sidewalk but they can no longer go out into the street to collect money, and they have to stay off the medians.

Every time and everywhere we watched, we saw panhandlers repeatedly dashing out into traffic or standing on prohibited medians or out in between traffic lanes.

“I got a citation for it,” one panhandler said.

“I got a ticket but that’s because I was out in the median,” another said.

“Have you been written any tickets since they started doing this?” we asked another panhandler.

“Yes I have,” he said.

“How many times?” we asked.

“Three times,” he said.

Every panhandler we spoke with had already been busted at least once under the pedestrian safety ordinance. Yet we recorded them all out there still doing the same illegal stuff. We watched the panhandler who said he’d been cited three times already get chased off the median by a police officer.

“What’d he say to you?” we asked him.

“He told me I ain’t supposed to be there, need to move or else he’d write me a ticket, so I left,” he said.

Then he came back three more times the same day doing the same thing. He was out in the same spot every other day we watched as well. He said he lives at Dosker Manor, gets a government check for $770 a month, does this to supplement his income, and isn’t worried about his tickets. The others aren’t worried about their tickets either.

“They probably dismiss it,” one panhandler said. “I don’t think there’ll be a fine.”

“I just took the ticket and went to court,” another said. “They threw it out.”

“Usually stuff like that just gets dismissed,” another panhandler said.

LMPD data shows 29 citations in the first two months that the new ordinance has been in effect. Most of them are downtown. We shared our observations with Commander Heady and asked him if the pedestrian safety ordinance is working.

“Yes and no,” Heady said. “I think for those who are committed, and that’s how they’re going to make some money, they’re going to do it. But we’re also seeing areas where we’ve had a pervasive problem, but don’t have problems anymore.”

So why do the people we observed keep coming back and breaking the law no matter how many times they get cited or chased away by police? They said a $50 fine, when they’re making $15 to $30 tax-free an hour is just the cost of doing business.

“Has it changed your ways?” we asked the panhandler who’s been busted three times. “I noticed you went out in the street a couple times just now.”

“Yeah but you know if they’re gonna give me a citation or fine me, I don’t have a job you know?” he said.

What were they doing with the money? Their signs often said they were hungry. But after a profitable stint at Brook and Broadway, I followed one panhandler on his bike to a store where he bought booze. He wouldn’t do an interview with us, but confirmed he bought alcohol and said he doesn’t feel bad about it because he only asks for a buck.

Half a block away were plenty of people struggling to handle their situations without panhandling. Some appeared as if they could really use some help. One was lying on the ground shaking.

But people stared or walked by without helping.

And life went on.

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