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Downtown panhandling concerns renewed

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Jeff Holmes holds a sign as he panhandles at Eldorado and North Main streets.

DECATUR — Under brewing rain clouds at the intersection of Eldorado and North Main streets, Jeff Holmes' sign read "Homeless Christian. Please help."

Holmes said rainy weather usually ups the number of "hits" he gets from nearby drivers.

"You call it a hit when somebody stops and gives you couple dollars," he said.

The 51-year-old man confirmed what many Decatur drivers have noticed: Different people using the same location, even the same sign to ask for money.

He said about 10 people share the intersection and a couple other spots around town, some with serious mental and physical conditions, some he suspects could find work but have just gotten used to life on the street.

"Probably half of them (don't need to panhandle)," Holmes said.

But Decatur police and social service providers who work with the homeless population would argue none of them need to ask for money, giving to panhandlers encourages people to ignore services and keeping afloat and alone.

City council members are expressing renewed concern over panhandlers potentially driving people away from businesses downtown.

City Manager Tim Gleason said he's receiving more complaints about panhandlers downtown, and "with my own eyes, it seems that there are more throughout primarily the downtown area," he said at a recent city council meeting.

Holmes told the Herald & Review he's currently homeless and has been sleeping in an abandoned house. He said he gets shelter and food from organizations like Oasis Day Center and Good Samaritan Inn but still likes to come out to the street for his own cash — to buy some beer, cigarettes, some food if he doesn't like what the shelter offers that day.

The group that shares time at the corner doesn't have any formal arrangement but tries to simply share the real estate.

"It's not really on how long you can be out there, it's kind of like, 'Yell at me when you're done, so I can go out there and use that same spot,'" Holmes said.

"I like to refer to is as 'manipulative entrepreneurship.' Most of them are not homeless. Anybody can get a cardboard sign and a marker and write 'homeless' on it," said Christine Gregory, executive director of Dove Inc., a Decatur-based coalition of religious social service organizations and volunteers.

According to Gregory, panhandlers have reported getting about $100 a day. Holmes said it all depends, but a decent pull would be $50 in three hours with the sign.

The latest Point in Time Survey of the Decatur-area's homeless population conducted in January showed that of 130 who were homeless, 23 were chronically homeless. At the July 3 city council hearing, Gregory put the chronically homeless count of 26.

City council members have requested a review of potential laws or enforcement options that could stem the perceived increase of panhandling, especially downtown where there are more pedestrians on foot.

"Anything we can do to make it legal, but put a little more punch into it," said City Councilman Pat McDaniel.

A long-existing Decatur ordinance is already on the books, which bans solicitation in public buses, within 15 feet of a bank or ATM, any private property, and to solicit any money in public "in an aggressive manner," which could include touching, asking after being denied, or trying to stop someone's walking or even driving path. Any of these are an offense that Police Chief James Getz said at the council hearing warrant a 911 call.

Holmes said he and others stay out with a sign because they don't want to bother pedestrians.

"To stand downtown and say 'Hey sir, do you have a dollar?" I consider to be a panhandler, if you're going up bugging people," he said.

Courts have routinely struck down laws aimed at removing people from public spaces, citing the constitutional right to assemble in public spaces and free speech.

From the law enforcement side, police routinely arrest and book the chronically homeless, only to find a choice few back on the streets.

"Just on two of our main solicitors that have been down there for many many years. We have Subject A: has been arrested 83 times ... been fined, served time," Getz said.

Holmes said holding a sign on the street and getting some cash is a way of helping oneself. "It's either that or you can sit in the Oasis and drink coffee and watch TV all day. I mean at least we're trying to make a couple of dollars," he said.

Police and social service organizations all say the same thing: Don't give panhandlers money.

Instead, Debbie Bogle, executive director of United Way of Decatur and Mid Illinois stressed a service started this year, 211. Police, emergency responders and concerned passersby can call 211, and United Way will help connect people with the proper social services operated in the area.

"Probably, it's not familiar to people yet like 911, but we hope it will be soon," Bogle said at the council meeting.

Bogle said recently a provider went to the same corner as Holmes' to talk to the people after a 211 call.

"Of three people (there), he got one to come back with him. Some of them are truly in need. Just don't give them money. When you see somebody call 211, get the information to call and help this person. If they're in need the're going to take the help," she said. | (217) 421-6949


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