Panhandlers asking for funds on Green Street met with skepticism

By Andrew Nowak

Kevin Love stares straight ahead as he sits hunched over outside HomeTown Pantry on Green Street, asking for change.

Love said he is currently homeless and not able to afford rent because he lost his job with Bankier Apartments in Champaign in 2012. He had been living in one of the company’s apartment buildings until December 2014. Due to how Love lost his job, he was not able to receive unemployment payments.

Love has been panhandling on Green Street for the past four and a half months, asking for money to rent a hotel room and buy food.

“You got to have a roof over your head,” Love said. “Sleeping in underground parkings and finding here and there little holes to duck in, that ain’t too cool, because you have to find cardboard, blankets, stuff like that to stay warm because I still want to live.”

Love said he cannot utilize local shelters, such as the TIMES Center and Stepping Stone Shelter, due to its background check requirements. Love said he has two orders of protection from when he lived in Kankakee, Illinois, in 1987 and was in prison from 1989 to 2003 for selling crack cocaine and involvement in human trafficking.

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He said he makes $60 on a good day, and on his worst day he made $21 after panhandling from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. On a normal day, Love goes to the Champaign Public Library in the morning to fill out job applications, and then starts panhandling around 3:30 or 4 p.m., staying until 2 a.m.

Tony Comtois, mentor at C-U at Home, said there is a reason why the same people are constantly seen on Green Street. He said the panhandlers are very territorial and panhandle in the area they sleep in. The panhandlers also cooperate with each other in order to maximize how much money they could make.

“(They think) don’t crowd up on me because then neither one of us are going to get any money,” Comtois said. “But if you stand four blocks down, they might give me some change here and then they might give you some change down there.”

Comtois said, Green Street, downtown Champaign and Prospect Avenue are the main areas panhandling occurs.

On Jan. 28, 2014, the Champaign County Continuum of Care conducted a survey of the county’s homeless population, both sheltered and unsheltered. The survey found 222 people in 176 households were homeless and 47 were children.

Compared to the 2013 survey, which found 214 homeless in the county, the number of chronic substance abusers dropped from 56 to 26, and the number of unsheltered dropped from 26 to 12.

However, Skip Frost, Deputy Chief of Police for the University, said not all panhandlers are homeless.

Frost said he has seen a man who stands on the median outside the Savoy Walmart panhandle for money and then drive away in his car at the end of the day.

Love said a lot of panhandlers use their earnings to “drink and drug,” which can affect the donations panhandlers receive due to skepticism of the public.

Achal Varma, junior in Engineering, is among the population of skeptical students. He said he doesn’t give money because he ends up seeing them in the same place every day.

“You can’t hold them accountable for what they do with it, even though I feel sorry,” Varma said.

Frost said while panhandling is not illegal, aggressive panhandling is illegal under Champaign City ordinance.

The department receives complaints about aggressive panhandling weekly from the general public, even people just driving through town or parents reading crime alert emails, Frost said.

Kerri Spear, Neighborhood Programs Manager for Champaign, said the city has worked with business owners in the campus area before to educate them on panhandling.

“What we try to do is educate both the public and panhandlers on what’s appropriate and not appropriate, and then how to respond to those situations,” Spears said.

Frost said the police need community assistance. He urges people to contact the police if they want to address the issue because aggressive panhandlers won’t do so in front of the police.

“The problem is when the people who do panhandle on campus, when they get aggressive, we’re not having people call us at the time,” Frost said. “They’ll wait a day, or five, or ten or they’ll just drive through campus and see the folks out there panhandling and then complain about it.”

Frost said when the police are called about someone being victimized by aggressive panhandling, police interview the victim and the suspect in order to determine if they will issue a citation. A citation for aggressive panhandling is $185, according to the city’s ordinance violation.

When the police respond to calls regarding aggressive panhandling, this can lead to catching bigger issues because Frost estimates a quarter of the time the panhandlers are wanted on a city, civil or criminal warrant. Panhandlers may also be carrying drugs or alcohol in public, Frost said.

Green Street has the highest concentration of panhandlers, Frost said. He said it used to be worse when the men’s shelter was at the McKinley Center at Fifth and John streets.

Robert Swinford, Director of the Salvation Army’s Stepping Stone Shelter, said the main reason panhandlers go to Prospect Avenue and Green Street is because of the high volume of traffic. Panhandlers are in downtown Champaign because it is centrally located to where all of their resources are, such as the homeless shelters and soup kitchen, Swinford said.

Frost said students on campus are generous when it comes to panhandlers and assume panhandlers will use the money given to improve their lives. But Frost said that is usually not the case.

“What we know is that for the most part, that’s not what that money goes for,” Frost said. “That money goes for alcohol, it goes for drugs, it may go for any other vices that they have.”

Comtois said the panhandlers all have some sort of addiction, but what it is,is hard to say.

“I know for a fact one of the guys spends a lot of money on video games,” Comtois said. “If you call that an addiction, you call that an addiction. But he’s out there panhandling, and he’s got a better video game system in his hotel than I do.”

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