Michael Martin returns time and time again to the Green Mount Road overpass in O’Fallon, begging for money for his family’s day-to-day living needs.
“We are stretched so thin,” said Martin, 70.
Martin is a panhandler.
Panhandling, a common term in the U.S., is more often referred to as begging, elsewhere.
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The term panhandling derives either from the impression created by someone holding out his or her hand and from the image of someone using a pan to collect money as gold miners once did in the American West when they used pans to sift for gold.
If you shop at Green Mount Crossing in Shiloh, or at a number of stores in O’Fallon and Belleville, odds are you’ve seen panhandlers like Martin begging for money recently.
But in recent weeks, you might also have even seen panhandlers in the parking lot at St. Nicholas Church in O’Fallon.
Martin said he and his wife are now only able to “survive” day-to-day with their Social Security and the money he collects while panhandling.
“Sometimes, I can only stand out here an hour, and I might make $40 or less,” said Martin, who recently had more than 15 people offer him assistance.
Among other things, Martin accepted Chick-fil-A from one passerby.
A van driver, from Church of the Living God in Fairview Heights, also gave Martin drinks and a box of food. Multiple drivers also handed him cash from all three lanes on the Green Mount Road I-64 overpass.
“Most of the people out here are good people,” he said. “Once, a lady handed me $10 and said ‘Thank you’ to me. I asked her why she said thank you. I should be the one thanking you. But (I guess) it makes you feel better when you are able to help someone.”
Martin doesn’t let the weather stop him.
“You still have to live,” he said.
Martin also smokes and has cats.
“Everybody has to have some type of his vice,” said Martin who lives in a one bedroom apartment in Belleville.
He said he has feline friends because they are comforting to he and his wife, who is also allegedly disabled.
But Martin said he doesn’t have any one in his family who can help him and his wife.
“Most of my family is dead,” he said.
“I think I still have a couple of brothers alive out in California,” he said. “But I have lost contact with them. So, it’s pretty much just me and the ‘ole lady left.”
Martin said not everyone ignores him, including the police.
“They ain’t going to kill me,” he said as a St. Clair County Sheriff patrol car passed by him in late October 2015.
Martin issued 35 citations in 28 months
O’Fallon Police have issued Martin 35 citations for pedestrians soliciting rides or business, a Class A misdemeanor, from April 7, 2013 to Aug. 29, 2015, according to documents provided by the O’Fallon Police after a Freedom of Information Act request was made by the Progress.
He was also issued three written warnings by O’Fallon police during the 28-month period.
Martin, on May 15, 2014, was taken to St. Clair County Jail on a St. Clair County warrant for an unrelated incident.
Ten days after being taken into custody, Martin was issued another citation for pedestrians soliciting rides or business by O’Fallon Police.
Martin said he doesn’t have a problem with the police.
“The cops around here are pretty good people,” said Martin, who still owes St. Clair County Court $250 in outstanding court costs.
He has already served an excess of 25 hours of court ordered community service for panhandling..
With a total of 63 charges on Martin’s St. Clair County Circuit Clerk record, 60 of those are charges for begging and pedestrian solicitation on roadway, solicitation cases filed against him in St. Clair County since 2011. The remaining three are for public intoxication, possession of drug paraphernalia and use of an expired Metro Link train ticket.
More recently, Martin was arrested for panhandling on Dec. 9, 2015 in O’Fallon, and has an upcoming court hearing slated for June 1.
Less than three months earlier, on Sept. 26, 2014, Martin was also cited for public intoxication, according to St. Clair County court documents. That charge was later dismissed, following a plea agreement.
Martin questions now what police will do if they see him panhandling.
“Are they going to lock me up tonight?” he said.
Panhandling cases on rise
Another panhandler standing solo is Jordan Marsh, 29, or at least when it’s her time to hold down the fort.
She has been spotted panhandling by herself in O’Fallon and Belleville with Martin and her boyfriend, Zeke Pennington.
Marsh, Pennington and Martin have frequently been seen working together, which Marsh said is necessary when bathroom and cigarette breaks are needed.
“We’re young, and can handle the weather and standing a lot, but it’s harder for (Martin),” Marsh said.
Pennington said his girlfriend doesn’t look like what people often consider a panhandler.
The typical profile of a panhandler that emerges from a number of studies is that of an unemployed, unmarried male in his 30s or 40s with substance abuse problems, few family ties, a high school education. and laborer’skills, Yale law professor Robert C. Ellickson stated in his 1996 study entitled Controlling Chronic Misconduct in City Spaces: Of Panhandlers, Skid Rows, and Public-Space Zoning.
Pennington said Marsh also doesn’t catch a lot of flack from passerbys.
“When people see a young guy holding a sign they tend to be more skeptical and rude,” he said. “People say I should look for a job.”
Marsh said when she and Pennington panhandle, they do not threaten people.
Marsh, and others alternate holding a sign, stating their plight. “Anything helps.”
Marsh said she recently lost her job at the Shiloh Golden Corral at Green Mount Crossing Shopping Center.
Pennington, as of mid-January, was still working there few hours a week at the restaurant as a dishwasher, Marsh said.
But Marsh said it’s still hard to pay for them to make ado.
“We’re always behind on our rent,” Marsh said.
She said their O’Fallon rental management company “has been very understanding” and willing to work with them.”
“I think, they know we’re doing our best,” Marsh said.
In January, Marsh feared she might be chased by Belleville Police again while talking with a Progress reporter at the median leading into Belleville Shopping Center near Wendy’s parking lot off Carlyle Avenue.
Currently, Marsh has no outstanding fines and is scheduled to appear in court for a community service review, according to records provided by the St. Clair Circuit Clerk’s office.
She earlier had a couple drug paraphernalia charges dismissed in Caseyville and O’Fallon against her.
But Marsh was arrested in Belleville for panhandling on Jan. 15 after she had just been chased out of and banned from Wendy’s. She has had been arrested six times for panhandling in St. Clair County, five of which happened in O’Fallon. Like Martin, on July 12, 2014 and on Dec. 23, 2014, was charged for having an expired MetroLink ticket. Both of those were later dismissed in court.
“Sometimes people give us gift cards instead of money, so we can get food or what we need,” Marsh said. “I just spent $8 at Wendy’s buying food, and then was told not to return.”
But Marsh said she no longer panhandles in St. Louis, where she earlier was arrested and served four days at St. Louis City Justice Center for panhandling.
“That place is just disgusting,” she said.
Meanwhile, Troy Harvey, 33, was most recently arrested for panhandling in Belleville on Feb. 9.
Harvey said he stayed a couple days at New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis, Mo., but feared his own safety.
Arrested for panhandling on Dec. 31, 2015, in Fairview Heights, and again on Jan. 15 in Belleville, Harvey said, he felt more warmly received while panhandling in the metro-east.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Harvey said he came to the area about 13 months ago while he and his family were moving to Colorado, where Harvey (who had been working as a wood inspector) was planning to take a better paying job.
Harvey never reached Colorado.
He said he also hasn’t seen his wife or 4-year-old daughter in over five months.
“I don’t care where I sleep, or what I have or don’t have,” said Harvey who was then living in a tent south of Belleville.
“But you don’t realize how important your family is until its gone,” he said.
Harvey said he lost his driver’s license and birth certificate in his car after it was impounded by Sunset Hills, Mo. police.
Looking for a place to live or get a job was nearly impossible because he had no identification, he said.
But, a St. Louis Church allowed Harvey to use its address so Harvey could receive his personal records in the mail, he said.
That’s just one step in the long process of getting back on his feet, he said, when talking of his goals.
O’Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook said panhandling is a growing issue because of the lack of enforcement.
“As the chief of police, I have to balance that concern for public safety,” he said. “There are a lot of people who do not support panhandling.”
Van Hook said there are a number of businesses that feel threatened by a panhandlers’ aggressive behavior and feel like they have a negative impact on their sustainability, especially the smaller ones when panhandlers who are often spotted he interstate exit ramps, creating traffic hazards.
“We worry about (a panhandler’s) safety,” Van Hook said. “There is a common misconception that all panhandlers or peddlers are drug addicts or are doing it because of a lack of responsibility,” he said. “But, that that’s not necessarily true.”
Van Hook believes police have to find a “delicate balance” when they deal with panhandlers.
“We are not here to make social judgments on people,” he said. “We do have laws and rules that we have to enforce, and I think our officers do a great job balancing that need for enforcement.”
Shiloh Police Chief Jim Stover said his department does not receive a high number of calls about panhandling, but complaints do exist.
He said most of the panhandling complaints his department receives are when a suspicious person(s) panhandling is spotted at entrances or exits to I-64 or at storefronts at Green Mount Crossing Shopping Center.
After Shiloh Police receive these complaints, their officers meet with the panhandler and inform them that panhandling is not allowed in Shiloh, Stover said.
“They then pretty much leave and go someplace else,” he said.
Belleville, O’Fallon and Shiloh have panhandling ordinances
In August 2009, panhandlers in Belleville were no longer required to get the mayor's written permission before asking for spare change. The Belleville City Council passed its ordinance easing the restrictions on beggars. In an 11-1 vote, the Belleville City Council exchanged its ordinance calling for mayoral sign-offs on begging for one allowing panhandling under tight restrictions, thinking a less-broad law would better survive legal challenges.
Many communities across the county have been grappling lately with what to do with the beggars and the local laws meant to discourage them, if not stop them all together, as a staggering U.S. economy leaves many down on their luck and short on cash.
In Belleville, the new measure allows beggars to ask for cash unless it's after dark or they're in groups, at public events or near banks and automatic teller machines. The practice also is banned in the parking lots of businesses, schools, public housing complexes and medical buildings.
In July 2012, the Shiloh Village Board amended its ordinance on prohibiting peddlers or transient vendors.
Less than three years later, February 2015, O’Fallon passed its current panhandling ordinance.
Martin said he is aware of the O’Fallon ordinance.
“But what in the hell is a city ordinance?” he said. “It it something put together by a couple of people who don’t like panhandling? I don’t like doing it. Get over it. What are they going to do to me? They can’t do anything to me. Are they going to lock me up tonight?”
Martin said after he has been arrested, he has had to go jail, occasionally. But, he said he always is released the next day.
During the May 12, 2014 Public Safety Committee meeting, Van Hook said O’Fallon was experiencing many solicitors who were not following the proper channel to acquire their permits.
He encouraged his officers to respond to these calls as “Zero Tolerance” cases.
“If any citizen is experiencing solicitations in which they are not wearing a badge, or they are on the No Knock List and are being solicited they need to call OPD in order for us to enforce the policy,” Van Hook told Public Safety Committee members.
At the time, O’Fallon Police Capt. Mark Berry said the city did not have a panhandling ordinance that would cover private property. This would include parking lots such as O’Fallon’s Wal-Mart and Home Depot, he said.
Berry recommended to the Public Safety Committee them to add regulations and prohibitions under the solicitors permits city ordinance to include the panhandling. This will allow OPD to enforce policy and better control the situations, he said.
Three different WalMart stores, including ones in O’Fallon and Belleville, were contacted on multiple occasions for interviews about how they handle panhandling on their properties. The O’Fallon WalMart store referred all questions to their corporate public relations department, who said while it was an issue, they’d defer all panhandling complaints to police.
“We don’t encourage panhandling. We just ask them to leave,” the spokesperson said. “We make donations to local food pantry’s, (like the O’Fallon Township Food Pantry).”
If the panhandler doesn’t leave, WalMart has advised its employees to call the police.
“Our main priority is keeping our customers feel safe,” he said.
Local churches weigh in
The Rev. Willie D. Brown of The Faith Baptist United Church of Christ, in O’Fallon said there comes a point when public and private resources need to be pooled together for the betterment of the less fortunate.
“We need to come up with a solution to this problem and go from there as one community,” said Brown. who is closely affiliated with Larry Rice, who runs New Life Evangelistic Center, a multimillion-dollar religious and homeless operation in downtown St. Louis since it opened in 1976.
‘Don’t be made into fools’
St. Nicholas Church pastor, the Rev. Bill Hitpas, said he was forced to address panhandling, as it was happening on his church’s parking lot at 625 St. Nicholas Dr., as recently as a few weeks ago.
“I did two things when I was made aware of a problem plaguing not just my parish, but also the whole area,” Hitpas said.
Hitpas has met with all of his church’s usher and his parishioners, telling them what they should do when they are confronted by a panhandler. Hitpas encouraged his parishioners to refer panhandlers to himself or St. Vincent de Paul, which operates a soup kitchen in East St. Louis, and/or call the police.
Hitpas said he is aware of two or three couples who’ve gone to varying churches in the area, who have also visited St. Nicholas parish parking lot after weekend Masses, asking for money knowing parishioners give to the poor.
“They’ll give a story to our people leaving church,” he said. “They prey on church goers’ sympathy and good hearts, but then they quickly speed off fast out of the parking lot.”
But after the panhandlers leave, it soon becomes clear to the parishioners that they “have been dupped,” Hitpas said.
“We later found out they had previously hit up five or six different people after church here and other O’Fallon churches were having the same problem with the same group of panhandlers,” Hitpas said.
“My message, whether it’s to the ushers, my parishioners or the community — is the same,” Hitpas said. “We want to help the poor, but it’s difficult for people to identify whether or not they are using the system and taking advantage of it.”
Joe Hubbard, president of the Board of Directors of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Belleville Council of Southern Illinois, has been working for decades with the needy. He said St. Vincent de Paul no longer gives cash out any more.
“We got burnt with that many years ago,” he said.
Instead, the Catholic organization tries to help people help themselves.
“So, now whatever they need we try to help them, not only with food, water, but with clothes and general hygiene,” he said.
St. Vincent de Paul also offers an array of education programs like its free money management class, job skills and and resume writing seminars with its limited financial resources, Pat Hogrebe, executive director of Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They also offer Gear Up, for men, and Career Gear, for women, programs which provide professional attire for job seeking, Hubbard said.
“We, as agencies, try to target the problem so a solution is foreseeable rather than just a dream,” Hubbard said. “We even let people use our facility address so we can allow people to get state identification cards and birth certificates.”
“We’ve had great progress in the last few years getting guardianship to get people in some sort of permanent housing or getting their Social Security cards or state id’s so they can apply for healthcare, housing and Social Security.”
Hubbard believes panhandlers are just trying to survive. St. Vincent de Paul has been able to make strides at mitigating the cause of panhandling or homelessness, he said.
“We try to keep a low profile, but that by no means lessens the tremendous amount of charity we do,” Hogrebe said.
▪ Positively identify the individual(s) panhandling or soliciting donations.
▪ Explain the city ordinance violation so the individual(s) have a clear understanding.
▪ Determine if there is a violation of the city ordinance.
▪ Attempt to determine the cause of their misfortunes.
▪ Attempt to contact and/or locate any family members to assist.
▪ Attempt to connect them with the appropriate social services or community outreach organizations for assistance.
▪ Provide transportation to a local shelter.
▪ Determine if the individual(s) are repeat offenders.
▪ If they are first time offenders, evidence exists that the city ordinance has been violated, and no other exigent circumstances exist, a written warning notice will be issued.
▪ If they are a repeat offender, a citation will usually be issued
Why Police discourage helping panhandlers
For those individuals interested in helping individuals panhandling, though it is the full discretion of the citizen or motorist as to what type and level of assistance they provide the individuals, local police would discourage it for the following reasons:
▪ Promotes an unsafe environment along the roadway.
▪ Potentially places the citizen or motorist in an unsafe situation with an unknown person.
▪ Encourages the individual(s) panhandling to continue or return.
Resources for homeless, panhandlers, or those who want to help
For those individuals interested in helping individuals panhandling, O’Fallon and Shiloh Police said options are limited in this area, but encourage citizens to contact:
▪ Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis, located at 1411 Locust St. in St. Louis, Mo. Contact: (314) 421-3020. Open 24-hours daily.
▪ Salvation Army in Belleville, located at 20 Glory Place in West Belleville. Contact: (618) 235-7378.
▪ Women’s Crisis & Violence Prevention Center, located in downtown East Belleville. Contact: (618) 236-2531.
▪ Fontebella Maternity Home, for homeless shelter for pregnant women, located in O’Fallon. Contact: (618) 406-4355.
“We recommend to those wanting to provide assistance to make donations to legitimate social services and/or community outreach organizations or churches who focus on those types of situations,” O’Fallon Police Lt. Jim Cavins encouraged.