PORTLAND, Maine — Don Deitz labored to get to the driver’s side window of a small red car, damaged nerves in his legs making even the short walk difficult.
He accepted a few dollars and a passing conversation from the driver, then returned to his cardboard sign and the corner of State Street and Park Avenue. Deitz’ sign announced that he’s disabled and homeless for anyone passing through the intersection — hundreds of cars — to see.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Deitz. “I’m more used to working for a living. This is really hard for me. I’ve had people come up and laugh at me. I’ve had people come up and give me a banana or something, and that’s really embarrassing. The whole thing is embarrassing.”
The city of Portland is grappling with a well-documented increase in homelessness, and while street begging or panhandling is statistically harder to quantify, police officials have noted an anecdotal increase in complaints about the activity. Sign-holders like Deitz can be seen at high-profile city gateways such as the median strip at the intersection of St. John and Congress streets, the end of Forest Avenue near Marginal Way, and at the corner of Marginal Way and Franklin Street.
The rise stirs an uncomfortable conversation among business owners, who worry the sight of beggars could deter traffic just as the economy is starting to rebound. Service providers and law enforcement officials also are concerned.
Just moments before the small red car, a vehicle sped by and ejected a plastic bag of coins, spiking violently to the ground at Dietz’ feet.
He rolled up the legs of his jeans to reveal gruesome scars, and said he doesn’t know how he got them. Neuropathy — nerve damage — has numbed his legs. He said he’s applied for disability coverage repeatedly and has been denied payments, and only recently turned to begging.
On his best day, Dietz said he made about $20 holding the cardboard sign, although he’s heard that others have made $50 or $60 in a given day.
Law vs. community response
City officials have said the number of people experiencing homelessness in Portland has increased by 20 percent over the past four years, and that the community’s six overnight shelters — which can hold nearly 350 people between them — are at capacity nightly.
“There’s no question the economic times are helping increase this activity, if only because it’s bringing people to Portland in search of shelter,” said attorney Trish McAllister. “The complaints are rising. Maybe people are just getting fed up with it. That, too, can be a sign of the economic times, as shop owners are starting to become more and more concerned” about the panhandlers’ impact on business.
McAllister is the Portland Police Department’s neighborhood prosecutor, a lawyer who strictly deals with civil violations. McAllister recalls a patrol officer once pushing a “panhandling” summons across her desk, and having to tell him there was nothing she could do with the charge in court.
“The ordinance has changed several times throughout the years, and the only wording on the books now is against ‘abusive solicitation,’” she said.
An individual passively displaying a sign seeking a donation, she said, is not in violation of the city rules and has the same constitutional free speech rights as anybody else demonstrating on a public street. McAllister said “abusive solicitation” would involve following passers-by or making threatening comments or gestures.
She said people hoping beggars and panhandlers will fade from public sight don’t have the legal system on their side. So, she said, their best recourse is to turn the market around.
“They’re making some money, because [beggars are] there day after day,” McAllister said. “It must be working. If this is something we don’t want to have any more, stop giving them money. Give the money to social service programs. If they’re there day after day, it must be making them money.
“Most or many of the panhandlers are using the money for alcohol or drugs,” she continued. “Maybe donate the money to Catholic Charities or Preble Street, where these people can get some serious help.”
That’s a mantra used by many in the business community, who say they don’t want the needy to go without help, but they also don’t want the image of panhandlers scaring away potential customers.
Doug Fuss, president of the organization Portland’s Downtown District, sits on the city’s community policing advisory board and is part of a small group of Portland residents and business owners considering a subtle campaign against giving to beggars.
“We’re trying to get people to understand that when they give money to panhandlers, they’re not really helping them, they’re enabling them,” he said. “There are people who are not in need who panhandle, and there are people who are in need who panhandle. But even for those who are in need, they’re better off going to [service providers like] Preble Street or the Milestone centers for help.”
Mark Swann, executive director of the homelessness and hunger prevention group Preble Street, said he won’t argue if somebody wants to donate to his organization. But he also defended people who might want to give money directly to individuals who are holding the cardboard signs.
“It’s a human being standing right in front of them, and if it’s in their heart to offer help to that person, who’s to say that’s not the right instinct?” Swann said. “I would ask that people not demonize or vilify the person doing the asking, who’s putting themselves out there in a pretty desperate way. It can be an easy place to point the finger at the person making the ask, without thinking about the complications in that person’s life or the context of the situation.”
And while Swann said he has seen a 25- to 35-percent increase over the past year in the number of meals being served every day at Preble Street’s soup kitchen, topping more than 1,000 daily meals, he said the prevalence of panhandlers or beggars in Portland is being overblown.
“I think in a lot of the comments I hear, the issue is grossly overstated in Portland,” he said. “I’ve had people say to me they can’t walk 10 feet down the sidewalk without getting asked for money, and I just don’t see that. I live here in Portland, and certainly I see people panhandling, but I don’t think it’s a pervasive city issue.”
Chris O’Neil, a government relations consultant for the Portland Regional Chamber, said homeless people are drawn to Portland because it’s a service center and carries a reputation as a “humanitarian mecca.”
“Most property owners and merchants in Portland have a reasonably high tolerance for so-called ‘street people,’ but everybody has a limit,” O’Neil said. “We’ve been reminded of the old adage that perception is reality. The more people in Portland talk about or complain about ‘those homeless people,’ the more visible and perhaps irritating ‘those homeless people’ become.”
Listening to Dietz, on the corner of State Street and Park Avenue, one might find that homelessness is irritating to no one more than to him.
Diez said he’s not “just a guy flying a sign on the corner.”
“A guy is flying a sign on the corner because he’s got no choice,” Dietz said. “He’s doing what he has to do to survive. That’s what he’s doing. It ain’t like I want to. I’m a human being, just like anybody else. I just have problems. People don’t realize that.”
Deitz, who said he sleeps in homeless shelters at night, grimaced at the question of whether he planned to use money given to him to buy alcohol.
“The most important thing for me is not to give up,” he answered finally. “Whether or not I’m going to use the money on alcohol or to buy food, that’s my business. The most important thing for me is not to give up.”
He said he stopped collecting cans for money because it wasn’t making him enough money to get by, and he admitted he’s unsure if begging on the corner will work either.
And if it doesn’t?
“It’s either this or … ” Deitz paused, then shrugged. “It’s either this or die.”