On any given weekday, four out of five cars parked around Cannon Park in the downtown Harleston Village neighborhood display a blue handicapped placard hanging from their rearview mirror. The pass allows a person to park their car indefinitely without paying a meter or being towed. Most of the handicapped parkers arrive between 7 and 8 a.m. and vacate between 4 and 5 p.m., indicating a large percentage of working people using the spots. If all of the cars displaying the passes are owned by valid, handicapped citizens, then Harleston Village is literally a community of cripples.
The overwhelming number of handicapped parkers has left neighborhood residents upset at the inability to find on-street parking for themselves and their visitors, and suspicious that MUSC and Roper Hospital employees are illegally using the tags.
"It's beyond wrong to illegally use handicapped parking," says John Liberatos, a Harleston Village Neighborhood Association committee member. "The pass is blue, but it's really a golden handicapped tag that means you're an immune class, and you can park wherever you want for as long as you want."
Illegally using the tags means the legitimately handicapped may not find a spot, as well as costing the city money in unpaid meters.
Rutledge Avenue resident Frank Rupp claims that people healthy in appearance, wearing nurse and hospital uniforms, park each morning and walk towards the hospital complex. Discussions on the neighborhood's web forum, www.harlestonvillage.org, speculate as to whether MUSC employees are obtaining passes from relatives, and even consider the possibility of an underground market for doctor's scripts providing them.
City Paper spent three afternoons approaching people entering handicapped cars, asking where they worked and how they were injured. Of the 15 or so people we spoke with on Rutledge Avenue and Gadsden Street, all were MUSC employees. Each person claimed either a back or a knee injury from some time in their past, but none walked with any apparent injury.
MUSC, Charleston City Council, and the local police all acknowledge that a problem exists but find it difficult to enforce, due both to current laws and the delicateness of any issue regarding the rights of the handicapped.
"People are so emotional about parking," says Melinda Anderson, certified administrator of public parking for MUSC. Their satellite park-and-ride system accommodates any employee free of charge, but she says that those with access to handicapped passes often choose to park within walking distance.
"I think there's probably some illegal use going on," says Anderson. "Employees may have grandmother so-and-so's placard, and she died last year, or an aunt who's disabled but doesn't go anywhere, so they just use their placard to go to work."
If an employee wants to park at the hospital's garage, they're required to pay like anyone else but are guaranteed an immediate place. The alternative is a free spot in the satellite lot, directly adjacent to a shuttle that drops you at the hospital's door. "We can't force employees to not park on city streets," says Anderson, "but we certainly want to encourage them to do what's right."
MUSC director of public safety Tony Dunbar sees illegal handicapped parking as a major problem, but claims the university has no jurisdiction to enforce what their employees do on city streets. Because the DMV issues two passes, good for four years each, per person and doctor's note, many are likely passed on to friends and family.
Checking the validity of a pass to a license plate requires sending the information to the DMV and a six-to-eight hour wait time, according to Dunbar. By the time an illegal pass is recognized, the driver is long gone. "Basically, you're stuck assuming it's a legitimate placard," says Dunbar. "A centralized database would make things dramatically easier, because you could immediately check the tag and determine whether it's registered to the person the car's registered to."
Beth Parks, communications director for the SCDMV, says that data identifying handicapped placards is currently not easily linked to a driver's other info in the database, but they hope to change that. "Our goal is to provide law enforcement with everything they need to do their jobs," says Parks.
Lieutenant Chip Searson of the Charleston City Police's traffic division was unfamiliar with the problem when City Paper contacted him. "I'm sure it's an abused privilege," says Searson. "If people can get away with something, they'll do it. But I personally have received no complaints from anyone over in Harleston Village."
Despite MUSC's and the police department's inability to combat illegal handicapped parkers, City Councilwoman Yvonne Evans feels changes can be made. "Perhaps if we could enlist the aid of some members of the community who are legitimately handicapped and use that placard, they could help us with that process."
Harleston residents like Liberatos and Rupp suggest a two-hour time limit placed on handicapped parkers, but politicians are wary of anything that could be viewed as encroaching on handicapped rights. "You have to be careful how you address this, because it can be seen as people not being sensitive to folks in need," says Evans. "My contention is that a truly handicapped person isn't going to be able to find a place to park in front of their house ... and that just doesn't seem right."
Charleston is not the first city to deal with a flood of handicapped parkers. In 2000, Denver limited handicapped parking to two-hours in the downtown area. Houston began offering a four-hour training for volunteers wishing to help enforce traffic in 2005, resulting in 2,255 citations that year by unpaid workers. "Frankly, I'd love to hook up with everyone parking illegally and issue some expensive tickets," says MUSC's Dunbar. "I wish there were simple answers."
It's not just MUSC. Around the College of Charleston on Glebe and Wentworth streets, it's not uncommon to spot an SUV with surf or bike racks and a blue wheelchair placard in the window. Liberatos claims there's a young man who parks in front of his office, nimbly exits his Datsun 240Z, and takes off jogging. Of course, many people have unobservable disabilities, but the sheer numbers downtown indicate some foul play.
"Out of all the people that abuse the handicapped system," says Liberatos, "hospital workers should be at the bottom of the list."