Downtown businesses push police to enforce Chicago panhandling

Tom Boland (
Sun, 25 Jul 1999 10:48:31 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Detroit Free Press - July 23, 1999



     By Jeff Gerritt
     Free Press Staff Writer

Near the shadow of the $206-million MGM Grand casino, Sam Cameron of
Detroit sat on a plastic crate. Holding a cardboard sign that read
"Homeless, need help," he waited for change from passing motorists on the
Lodge Service Drive.


People who work with panhandlers generally advise not to give them money,
but some say to let your conscience guide you.

"It's a hustle," said Evnoy Green of the Salvation Army center on Bagley.
"Some of these guys are real professionals."

Even so, Green said, he gives from time to time, when he sees an especially
needy looking person.

"I have my moments of guilt," he said. "Let your conscience be your guide."

But police officers such as Detroit Inspector Donald Williams advise people
not to give.

"People make the problem worse by giving money," Williams said. "Once they
become successful, they'll stay in an area. People feel sorry for them, but
there are places downtown where they can get a meal or a bed."

Claudine Merritt, director of resource development for the Salvation Army's
Eastern Michigan division, doesn't give money. Instead, she advises people
to direct panhandlers to a shelter or pantry, where they can get
counseling, meals and medical attention.

Linda Clark, executive vice president of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries,
said people can give money to a social service agency instead of to a

But Clark said she would not tell someone never to give money. "It's a
personal choice."

If the soon-to-open casino is another shiny symbol of the new downtown
Detroit, Cameron and the hundreds of visible homeless people and
panhandlers are a reminder of the old: nagging social problems of poverty
and homelessness that experts say won't go away, even if they are shoved
out of sight.

Two years ago, Cameron, 45, said he lost his cab -- and his livelihood --
because he couldn't pay off his traffic tickets. Now he lives in shelters
and makes $8 to $12 a day panhandling.

Although panhandling, or begging, is a misdemeanor offense under city
ordinance, enforcement has not been strict. Most panhandlers are left alone
if they're not disturbing people or if they're in an area where police have
gotten few complaints. Cameron said some police officers tell him to leave;
others just drive by.

But downtown businesses, seeking to attract more affluent and suburban
customers, are pressuring police to step up enforcement of panhandling and
disorderly person ordinances -- and police are responding.

Police getting tougher

In Greektown, police and business owners have reduced panhandling during
the past year by asking panhandlers to leave unless they have a vendor's
license, said Steve Georgiou, president of the Greektown Merchants
Association and co-owner of the Olympia.

"The police are getting more aggressive," he said. "When panhandlers are on
the street, they tend to intimidate our customers. We don't want to hurt
them. At the same time, we don't want them to hurt our business. We want to
be able to take our wives and girlfriends down to this area and feel

Police Inspector Donald Williams of the 1st (Central) Precinct said
panhandling is the biggest complaint he gets.

During the last year, the downtown precinct has started to use plainclothes
officers in Greektown and the financial district, where complaints against
panhandlers have been most frequent.

Since last summer, police have added six bike patrol officers in the
downtown area. Officers on bikes, as well as on foot, handle most
panhandling complaints.

Root problems put aside

Still, Williams acknowledged, police are shifting the problem, not solving
it. "We end up just pushing it along," he said. "Homelessness is a social
problem -- it's not just a police problem."

Bob Beckley, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the
University of Michigan, said most cities won't take on the many social
problems -- including substance abuse, joblessness and mental illness --
that cause homelessness.

Instead, he said, cities such as New York have opted for an easier
solution: cracking down on panhandlers in pedestrian areas and keeping
homeless people out of sight.

On any given day, there are more than 10,000 people homeless in Detroit,
including 1,800 families, according to Claudine Merritt, director of
resource development for the Salvation Army, Eastern Michigan Division.
Roughly two-thirds of them have a substance abuse or mental health problem,
she said.

Linda Clark, executive vice president of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries,
said more money is needed for homeless programs.

Mayoral spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said Detroit would not take the
hard line on homeless people. "We're looking at solving the larger issue."
She wasn't specific.

Word on the street

On Thursdays, Fort Street Presbyterian Church, on West Fort, feeds hundreds
of homeless people. Many say police are cracking down on them.

"You see a lot more police presence," said Steven Beard, 30, as he sat in
front of the church. "Greektown is off-limits now, and they're working this
way. Right now, they're taking in people for panhandling. Before, you got a

Beard said he lost his job at a Detroit waste disposal center more than a
month ago. Since then, he has lived in shelters.

"I'm not used to living like this," he said. "I'm kind of ashamed."

Not everyone on the street can tell you how they got there.

Sidney Williams, 37, said he lives on the street and was ticketed last week
for sitting in an abandoned building.

When you ask him about his life, he talks about Memphis, Elvis and Coleman
Young. "I don't bother anyone," he said.

Williams has a view of downtown development, though. "You're going to put a
casino near all this?" he asked, standing near Woodward and Michigan.
"You'll have more debt, more crime, more situations."

West Congress is crowded with shops, pedestrians and panhandlers.

One of them, Ann Wilson, 50, sat on a wooden bench. "Can I get a little
help?" she asked, as well-dressed people hurried by.

Wilson said she lives on about $400 a month in Social Security benefits and
$14 a month in food stamps. She said she injured her back a few years ago
and can't work standing. She lives in an apartment and panhandles when she
can't make ends meet.

Most people are pleasant, she said. A few spit at her feet or scowl. Wilson
takes it philosophically. "They don't have to give you money," she said.
"Maybe they don't have it to give."

Bonnie Fugiel-Holben, who owns Bon's Barbershop on Cass, said she regularly
sees several panhandlers outside her door. One passes out on the sidewalk
from time to time.

"You don't have this in the suburbs," she said. "With more businesses
opening downtown and the casinos opening, you've got to make it pleasant to
do business."

Fugiel-Holben said downtown needs more enforcement of city ordinances aimed
at panhandling but also more places for poor people to get help. Until
then, "We're not going to be the world-class city the City Council and
mayor keep talking about."


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