What's a fake bum?
That was one of many questions on my mind Tuesday afternoon as I stood at the corner where I-526 meets Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, listening to an angry man argue with homeless people about whether they were running some sort of con game.
As usual at afternoon rush hour, panhandlers were taking turns holding cardboard signs and begging for change from commuters who were waiting in traffic at the end of the Mark Clark Expressway. In another sight that's become increasingly common over the past few weeks, a protester had showed up to chase away charity from would-be benefactors.
Beggars have been working Charleston's streets and sidewalks openly since March 2014*, when the city dropped some restrictions on panhandling under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, but public frustration with panhandlers has been mounting in the past month or so. The Post and Courier recently ran a story on whether panhandlers are "hurting Charleston's image," City Paper columnist Dwayne Green has written that the city's intersections are "overrun with panhandlers," and a 600-member Facebook group called Holy City Pan Handlers has formed to "expose the professional pan handlers that have infiltrated our city on every street corner," according to the group's self-description.
I went out Tuesday afternoon to witness a fascinating new phenomenon: Private citizens taking time out of their busy days to harangue beggars face to face. I didn't have to wait long.
I had been standing in the shade of the I-526 overpass for just a few minutes when a white pickup truck pulled into a parking lot on the other side of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. Two of the panhandlers recognized the truck immediately as belonging to John Garrett, an anti-panhandler. This past weekend, Garrett filed a police report claiming that one of the panhandlers slashed a tire on his truck, and he also claims he once had to pull a gun on a panhandler who charged at him (more on that story in a minute).
Garrett was coming in hot as he walked across traffic to confront the peddlers who were waiting for their turn on the corner. "I'm sick and tired of your bullshit!" he bellowed. "All this fuckin' trash? You can help me clean up." He was carrying a box full of black trash bags and a cardboard sign that read "FAKE BUMS," which he waved over his head at any driver who would pay attention.
One of the panhandlers, Ronald Moore, hollered back, "Brother, I clean up all the time out here."
"Do you, now?" Garrett said. "How about you help me pick it up?"
"I'm about to warn you, now, don't come up and bother me."
"I'm just telling you, dude, I've got buddies on their way."
Clearly, things have gotten a little tense.
Let's back up to what happened last weekend. On Fri. March 6 at about 4 p.m., Chad Walton, an administrator of the Holy City Pan Handlers Facebook group, called Charleston police from the motorcycle and jet ski shop he owns on Savannah Highway. When an officer arrived at the shop, which is just a mile away from the panhandling hotspot at the end of I-526, Walton said he was having an ongoing issue with "the city."
"Whenever an officer shows up, they never do anything or what I want them to do," Walton said, according to the report.
Walton told the officer that he was angered by the change in the city's panhandling regulations and said he thought panhandlers were "a nuisance to the public." The officer noted in the report that he recognized Walton from a previous incident a week prior when Walton got into a heated argument with some panhandlers after videotaping them. In the previous incident, Walton left the scene after the officer showed up.
This time, Walton said his friend, who owns a barbershop on Savannah Highway, had overheard some of the panhandlers "talking about [Walton] and threatening him," according to the report. The officer called the barbershop owner, who said he did not know the names of the people who had been in his shop, but that three white males had been complaining about Walton because he had been standing beside them with a sign that said, "Do Not Give These People Money."
Walton wanted to file a report about threats being made against him, but the officer writes in the report that he "explained the issue of hearsay" to Walton.
After insisting that he would file a report with one of the officer's superiors, Walton showed the officer a video he had recorded at the corner of Savannah Highway and I-526. In the video, as one of the panhandlers walked toward Walton's pickup truck, Walton could be heard saying, "You keep coming at me like that and I'm going to do something about it," according to the incident report.
At this point, Walton paused the video and told the officer, "I need documentation so when I shoot that motherfucker there is a paper trail. I need paperwork from CPD to prove I call you guys, so it will help me if I have to prove self-defense," according to the report.
The officer consulted with two sergeants and told Walton that an investigator would be contacting him.
Later that same weekend, on Sunday at about 4:30 p.m., John Garrett told police he was being harassed by a panhandler named Donald Collett while protesting near Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and I-526. The officer then interviewed Collett, who had just walked back from a nearby parking lot and was bleeding from a cut on his palm and thumb. Collett told the officer that Garrett was harassing him. The officer left without making any arrests.
At 5:45 p.m., the officer returned to the scene after Garrett reported that someone had vandalized his truck. The officer noted that the left rear tire was flat, there was broken glass in front of the truck, and there was blood on the passenger door and window. According to the report, Collett admitted to damaging Garrett's truck and was arrested on a charge of damage to personal property.
When I met Garrett under the overpass Tuesday, he brought up the incident before I could even ask him about it.
"Their fuckin' buddy tried to slash my fuckin' tires," Garrett said. "I'm going to court on April 3. He couldn't even do that shit right, he's so fuckin' stupid. Cut his hand. The fake bum blood is still on my fuckin' truck."
The panhandlers I talked to said they barely knew each other, but Garrett referred to them using terms like "their buddy" and "your boy." He thinks the panhandlers are in cahoots somehow, but he hasn't been able to prove it.
"Not to mention, I had to pull a gun on their friend. I think he's down there," Garrett said, pointing toward the interchange. "You can check with the Charleston County Sheriff's because he tried to assault me, man, so he got a .40-caliber pulled on him."
"Wow," I said.
"Oh yeah!" Garrett said. "You can call the Charleston County Sheriff's about that. Their boy ran 150 yards like he was a linebacker gonna do something."
A spokesman for the Charleston County Sheriff's Office said Garrett actually filed his report with the Charleston Police Department. A spokesman for the Charleston Police Department said no such report had been filed under Garrett's name.
Back to my original question: What's a fake bum? Here's how Garrett put it to me as we stood under the overpass with the panhandlers.
"I don't like what they're doing, man. They're very organized. They got smartphones, they work in shifts, they wear nice designer clothes. Maybe he's not wearing designer jeans, maybe she's not, but I saw some chick wearing like $80 jeans."
If I had to write a working definition based on the criteria being used by Garrett and the Holy City Pan Handlers Facebook group (of which Garrett is not a member), a fake bum is any panhandler who uses a modern cell phone, drives a nice car, wears nice clothes, coordinates with other panhandlers, or is physically capable of work.
In the Facebook group, members refer to one panhandling woman as "ManBearDog" and repeatedly post her contact information. One group member posted a picture of his van with the caption "The Bum Snatcher." Outside of Fox News broadcasts and Ayn Rand-themed satirical rants, I have rarely seen such white-hot anger directed at the poor. In a post Tuesday night about an upcoming event dubbed "Operation Bum Free Corners 1," Walton wrote the following:
Get your cardboard signs ready. Once OBFC1 launches on March 21st we will be launching more and more attacks on their locations around the city in an effort to push them out of Charleston. Expect there to be raids on their locations with only an hour or two's notice every few days. Stay on this page to keep up to date on when and where these raids will take place. The local government is hands off on this issue. So it is up to us the citizens to create the change we want.
I've requested an interview with Walton, but he hasn't called me back yet.
For the record, some of the panhandlers do have smartphones. Some of them say they sleep outdoors, others in a hotel. One woman told me she was a stay-at-home mom until her boyfriend lost his landscaping job. I don't have the time to verify all of the panhandlers' stories, but they are keenly aware of the assumptions being made about them.
On Tuesday, when Garrett confronted several of the panhandlers, one woman who preferred to remain anonymous told him, "I don't litter, I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I don't even smoke cigarettes." Later, she said, "I've seen the posts that y'all have been putting on Facebook ... But before you start harassing people, if you want to sit here and accuse people of scamming people, I don't scam people. My kids are with my mother, OK? My kids are with my mother because I'm not capable of taking care of my kids because of my disability."
"OK," Garrett said, "so maybe you're the exception, but what about your boy —"
"Listen, that's not my business," the woman said. "That's his business what he's doing out here."
Moore, who says he is homeless and sleeps in the woods, pulls up his pants leg when met with skeptics. His inner calf bears a long scar that he says came from surgery to repair a collapsed artery and a subsequent gangrene infection. "It's very seldom I come out here and ask," Moore says. "If I come out here and make $10, I get off the corner because all I want to do is buy my cigarettes and buy my food."
"People say it's organized, it's some kind of scam you're running," I suggest.
"It's organized," Moore replies. "Everybody gets 10 minutes or 15 minutes on the corner. We take turns."
So there you have it: The grand conspiracy, straight from the panhandler's mouth.
The other big question on my mind Tuesday afternoon was a perennial one for me: What do you do for panhandlers?
Unlike former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, I do not believe that poor people are like stray animals who ought not to be fed or allowed to reproduce. Over the years, I've adopted a couple of different policies when strangers ask for money.
At one point while living in Columbia, I carried no cash, but I would offer to help meet people's needs personally. I bought a few Greyhound bus tickets for homeless people, and I took about a dozen people out for meals at the Hardee's in Five Points. And man, I heard some stories.
Like the woman who followed an abusive husband to South Carolina and then contracted HIV. Or the man who studied jazz performance in college and then found himself playing the guitar for tips on the street to make a living. Or the guy who said he was awoken in the park one night by frat boys pelting him with frozen paintballs from a high-velocity gun.
Were they telling the truth? Yeah, sometimes. In my experience, homeless people have about the same ratio of truth-telling to BS as the general population — that is to say, about 50-50.
I've had friends who stash giveaway bags in their car full of nonperishable food, personal hygiene products, and information on local homeless shelters and services. It's a pretty good way to ensure your gift won't be used to fund a drug habit, and it hopefully reminds panhandlers that there are resources available to help them out of their situation.
Recently, my pastor has actually encouraged me to start carrying cash in my pocket to give to panhandlers. He says it's a form of almsgiving, and he encourages our congregation to be promiscuous in its giving. It's probably not a bad policy spiritually speaking, but I sometimes wonder about the efficacy.
Here's an extreme example: On my way in to work one morning, I stopped for gas at Rivers and Reynolds and was approached by a woman who said she needed a ride downtown. Since I was headed that way anyway, I told her to hop in.
No sooner had we pulled out of the gas station parking lot than my new friend made a proposition: "I'll blow you for 10 bucks." I felt stupid, and I stammered out a polite refusal.
So what do you do in that situation? I ended up giving her my Snickers bar and whatever cash I had in my shirt pocket before dropping her off on the sidewalk. Looking back, I think maybe there is something to be said for giving money to beggars. Even if they're just going to shoot the money into their arm or snort it up their nose, at least they didn't have to get it by nefarious or illegal means.
Of course, any money I give to panhandlers is a temporary fix at best, an enabling device at worst. There are plenty of worthy local causes for donations when it comes to serving the poor, including One80 Place and Tricounty Family Ministries, and I'd probably do well to match any cash I give to strangers with a donation to a place where I know it will be put to good use.
And if I really cared — and if I'm honest, I usually don't — I'd give my time as well. The real work on poverty begins in schools, and I've kept a Communities in Schools volunteer application in my briefcase for so long I can barely read the text through the creases. One day, seriously, I promise I'll fill it out.
As I left the corner of 526 and Sam Ritt, I crossed paths with a man wearing a shirt from Seacoast, the megachurch that has a branch just down the street from this panhandling hub. Seacoast has a reputation for serving the poor, so I asked him what he made of the skirmishes on the corner.
"I try to encourage them to come to the food pantry," he said. Beyond that, he said he had given cash on a few occasions.
Garrett chased me down to let me know that some bikers would be coming by later in the evening to help him with the litter clean-up mission. Beyond that, he said he planned to contact some local business owners and see if they would hire the panhandlers. I'll believe it when I see it.
"As soon as we get this intersection cleaned up," Garrett said, "we're gonna work on other parts of Charleston."
*Technically, panhandling was already legal before 2014, but the city required panhandlers to apply for a charitable solicitation permit, a process that cost about $32. In 2012, the city reported that it issued just 11 charitable solicitation permits. Meanwhile, police were citing and arresting panhandlers for begging without a permit. Click here to read more about the ACLU's challenge.