LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Drivers and shoppers have discovered a new aspect of life in Central Arkansas, one many are not comfortable with: panhandling.
Lots of people complain about it, but there hasn’t been much discussion about how to fix it.
“They have no other choice but try to survive out on these streets,” Clark Gray said.
Gray understands better than most. He is homeless, and can often be seen holding a sign asking for money near downtown Little Rock.
“We don’t ask for much,” he stated. “Just enough to buy a meal, or water to drink.”
Social media sites are full of comments from people who are irritated about panhandlers in Little Rock. People also complain about beggars in North Little Rock and Conway. Even local panhandlers said they have noticed a difference over the last several months.
“I’ve just seen more homeless out flying signs and panhandling than I have before,” Billy Jeffers mentioned.
A federal judge ruled last November that the state’s law banning panhandling was illegal. While many people risked jail time to beg for money in the past, they can be more open about it now.
City Director Lance Hines said that a few businesses in west Little Rock, which he represents, have seen people beg for money in their parking lots and inside their stores. He believes the state legislature may need to write new laws to protect public spaces and punish aggressive panhandlers.
The City of Little Rock recently codified an ordinance approved in 2015 to keep people from begging in the middle of the street or in a median. Officer Steve Moore of the Little Rock Police Department said officers can act if a panhandler is impeding traffic or is harassing people. But given the continued increase in violent crime around the city, calls about panhandlers are often given a low priority, so Moore said an officer might not respond to a complaint immediately.
“Don’t be scared of someone that’s in need of help,” said Aaron Reddin, President of The One, a homeless resource center. “The people aren’t out to hurt you. There may be some folks out there that might make you uncomfortable. I get that. You know, some folks can be a little aggressive, I get that. But it’s rare.”
Reddin believes the recent response from city leaders has been overly aggressive to the homeless community. He helped lead a protest earlier this week against a proposed ordinance to restrict and charge for group feedings in public parks. He also led a charge against the evictions of homeless people from makeshift camps.
“We’ve invited folks to the table,” Reddin stated, “to try to work on some actual solutions, work on some safe places for people to sleep so that we don’t deal with people being washed away in their tent and drowning.”
“I believe that they’re getting tired of hearing stories about, ‘the homeless did this, and the homeless did that,’” Jeffers said. “You know, they’re only hearing the bad stuff about homeless, but they don’t want to hear the good stuff that homeless people are doing, and so, therefore, they’re basically saying, ‘well, we don’t want the homeless people here, let’s figure out a way, what we can do, to get them somewheres else.’”
Another reason many people dislike panhandlers is that a some of them are scammers. They may hold signs and claim to be homeless, but drive home to their apartments at the end of the day.
“I’d say probably about, maybe 20 percent,” guessed Gray.
“Too many of us out here that really, desperately, really, (are) basically begging for help to better ourselves,” Jeffers said, “but we can’t because of those that’s out there just to pay their rent or put gas in their car.”
“At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of homeless people have never held a cardboard sign,” Reddin stated. “So we have to stop assuming that this is a homelessness problem. There are just as many people who are housed who are going out and doing this as there are people who are homeless.”
Little Rock city director Joan Adcock said during a recent phone conversation that people panhandle because it works. Those who do not like it, she suggested, should donate, instead, to the non-profits that help homeless people get through the day and get back on their feet, including Jericho Way, Union Rescue Mission, Little Rock Compassion Center, Friendly Chapel, The Van, and more.
Reddin, who also operates The Van, disagreed.
“I would never discourage anyone from giving anyone anything,” he stated. “Is it the best way for everyone? No. But when you’ve known people who genuinely didn’t know what else to do at that time, it’s a little harder to look down on it, and a little easier to find a little mercy and compassion.”
“I think it’d be a good thing to look at,” Reddin said. “The only issue that I see with the ones that I’ve looked at in other cities is that they’re temporary, so they’ll give you only so many hours of work—300, 400 hours—and then you’re done and you can’t participate anymore. So where’s that person going to be then, you know? So if there were a way to make it sustainable and make it a little more long-term for people, then I think it could probably be a really great thing.”
Gray and Jeffers said they would appreciate any opportunities, even on a volunteer basis.
“Something that we could look forward to of the day,” Gray mentioned. “There’s some people that just sit at the library, or just walk around like zombies, you know, just giving up on life.”
“A lot of us, we can’t really keep a job, or whatever, because we’re always moving,” Jeffers explained, “because we always get run off from other places.”
Jeffers has a few favorite spots in which to panhandle in Little Rock and North Little Rock. Occasionally he will hold his sign all day, but more often than not he stops after a few hours.
“Because there’s so many people out here,” he noted, “you try to be nice to other people that’s also trying to get money for food and stuff, too. You try to be nice and let them get a chance, also.”
Gray also moves between a few locations, though his reasoning is more about respect for the neighborhoods than his fellow homeless.
“I don’t like to be in one spot too long,” he explained, “because people will drive by, they say, ‘oh, this is where this homeless is. And I’m not going to drive through there.’”
Jeffers said he often sets a goal and stops when he receives that amount, no matter how generous passersby may be on a given day.
“If I could get, say, $20 in my pocket,” he mentioned, “just for the day—and that’s a whole day. I could be out here from 7:00 in the morning to 5:00 at night—if I get $20 in my pocket, I will count that as a blessing and say I had a good day.”
Additional cash, he said, might go toward hygiene items, new clothes, or new blankets.
“All I do is I buy food,” Gray stated. “If I have enough, I rent a hotel, to where I’d have a bed to sleep in; a warm shower to take.”
Jeffers stated he has been homeless since 2009; Gray since 2013. Gray said he feels as though many people, especially in government, treat him like an eyesore. He does not enjoy begging for money, but said, for now, that is his best option.
“Being shunned by the community, you know, (having) their nose turned up at us, and having that ‘I’m better than you’ attitude (hurts),” he said. “They have to realize that we are not out to harm anyone. We’re just trying to stay alive.”