Randy Solesbee, a Berea resident and Vietnam veteran, explains why he needs financial help as he panhandles for money in Travelers Rest. LAUREN PETRACCA/Staff
Ronnie Baker, 59, used to make a living as a painter. These days, it’s primarily through panhandling.
Baker is homeless. He said a series of injuries and health issues have made the last 13-plus years difficult for him to get a job. So, to make money, he leaves his tent in the woods and stands alongside Woodruff Road.
“I just stand there with a sign and let people give to me from the kindness of their hearts,” Baker said. “Some days I make good money. Some days I don’t even make $10.”
It’s “hard,” Baker said.
It will get harder for Baker and other panhandlers under a new campaign that focuses on ending homelessness partly by deterring panhandling. The campaign, called the 23-HEART (Homelessness Education, Assistance, Reduction and Transition initiative), was established by the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office is partnering with the Greenville Police Department to implement the campaign. The effort involves educating the public on the adverse impacts of homelessness and how everyone has to work together to provide solutions, said Martine Wilder, community relations and correspondence manager for the Sheriff’s Office.
According to one local pastor who works closely with the homeless population in Greenville, panhandlers can make up to $300 a day panhandling along Woodruff Road.
However, income from panhandling does not solve the homelessness problem, said Deb Richardson-Moore, pastor of Triune Mercy Center. Others who work with the homeless population in Greenville agree.
“It simply is not effective — like applying a Band-Aid to a broken leg,” Richardson-Moore said.
“In the cases that I know of personally, all the money has gone to drugs or alcohol,” Richardson-Moore said. “That’s why we encourage people to give to churches and agencies who are offering transformative help in the areas of drug rehab, mental health counseling, shelter, housing, employment, case management, education, all those supportive services that truly help someone get back on his feet."
Helping people find that transformative help also is the focus of 23-HEART, Wilder said. Panhandling will be the first focus of the program. Through a “Give Smart” Public Service Announcement, the public will be encouraged to not give cash to panhandlers for reasons that have been substantiated.
“Ultimately, we want to encourage people who are homeless to pursue a life off the streets by taking advantage of services that will effectively provide them with immediate shelter, food, and medical attention and then, hopefully, get them on a transitional track to reestablishing a residence and employment,” Wilder said.
The law enforcement campaign will communicate the "counter-productiveness of people giving cash to homeless persons who are both soliciting without a permit and perpetuating their homeless condition via panhandling," Wilder said.
Baker, a divorcee with five grown children, said if he weren’t able to panhandle, he’d work.
He said he still tries to find a job, but he can’t even find work as a "day laborer."
“They’re afraid I’ll get hurt,” said Baker.
Baker said he suffers from “real bad chronic seizures” and other physical ailments. He said he stopped painting when the seizures began.
“I tried disability and they turned me down because of alcohol use,” he told The Greenville News.
Without a permit
So Baker, a Greenville native, panhandles.
Since January 2017, there have been 46 arrests by the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office for begging/soliciting without a permit. Panhandling is legal with a permit, but people rarely get one.
The city of Greenville has had 193 incident reports for begging in that time frame, according to Sgt. Johnathan Bragg, spokesman for the Greenville Police Department.
According to Wilder, panhandling is a big problem on Woodruff Road, where Greenville’s sole Greyhound Bus Station moved in 2013.
“We have a lot of transient and homeless populations coming here via Greyhound (bus),” Wilder said. “They get dropped off at the bus station
The transient and homeless are coming to Greenville from as far away as Maine, Wilder said. Many are finding refuge in the homeless camps that exist in the county.
“Our main concern is we don’t want these people on the streets and we don’t want them participating in an illegal activity," Wilder said. So, Wilder formed the cooperative to tackle the issue of panhandling while "extending a hand to the homeless."
“We, as a law enforcement agency, want to take away their source of income from panhandling,” Wilder said. “But I’ve still got the community on my mind which means that I can’t take away their source of income without pushing them towards and offering them help as the solution.”
23-HEART is designed to encourage cooperation among law enforcement, nonprofit organizations, businesses and faith-based groups to focus on adequately addressing and providing solutions to eliminate homelessness. In addition to the initiative, a hotline has been set up for anyone seeking emergency or transitional shelter, food provisions, and medical care.
The hotline numbers are 864-23HEART or 833-23HEART (toll-free). They provide callers with information about the location and access to services.
The number of homeless people in the state, including Greenville County, fell in the 2017 Point In Time (PIT) Count Report, released annually by the South Carolina Interagency Council on Homelessness.
The report showed a decrease in homelessness in the Upstate by 500 people in 2017, a 28 percent decline to 1,317 in 2017 from 1,817 in 2016.
During the last 10 days of January, communities across South Carolina and the nation conduct a count of individuals and families who were experiencing homelessness, the report said.
The county is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The totals result in a homeless census that is called a “Point in Time Count.”
Despite the decline in the Upstate, the largest proportion of the state’s homeless population is in the Upstate region, said United Housing Connections (UHC) in Greenville.
“While it does appear that the number of people experiencing homelessness seems to be on the decrease, there are many factors that influence the outcomes in this report,” Natalie Worley, chief operating officer at UHC, said in a written release.
“The Upstate experienced unseasonably warm weather on the night of the count, which means it was unnecessary for those normally needing cold weather shelter to gather in those locations,” she said.
She said a decrease in housing inventory, as well as the reclassification of some beds from transitional housing units to emergency shelter, also were contributing factors.
Lauren Stephens, social ministries director for the Salvation Army of Greenville County, said panhandling is a misunderstood option taken either by people who are homeless or those who just think it’s an easy way to access some funds.
Giving money to someone who is standing on the street asking for it doesn’t help them in the long term, she said.
Greenville has agencies that are doing things to help people get out of homelessness, addiction and other issues that may keep them in a homeless situation, she said.
A discussion the cooperative has had focused on why people give to panhandlers standing on the streets with signs that say, “Homeless. Hungry. Anything helps. God Bless.”
She believes it’s because signs draw an emotional response from passersby in cars or people walking down the street.
Instead of money, Stevens said, people could carry a bottle of water in their cars to hand out to people with signs and direct them to agencies that can help them if they’re hungry or need a place to stay.
Often the panhandler will not use the money to buy something to eat, she said.
“I won’t say every single time that’s the case, but more often than not the folks who are hungry in Greenville are not the homeless,” she said.
“We have agencies that do provide meals and part of what this PSA will do is help to link the public, not necessarily to folks who are needing the services, but to the agencies that are already doing this type of assistance,” she said.
Taking away people’s ability to profit from illegally panhandling, would take away their ability for many to buy things that aren’t good for them, Stephens said.
It may also help precipitate a desire to seek shelter, she said.
“I would like to think that if someone didn’t have the means to sustain themselves living outside or if they didn’t have the ability to maybe continue a bad habit, or have a little bit of money to maybe buy something to eat then maybe they would be drawn to the agencies that are there to help them," Stephens said.
"Truthfully,” Stephen said, “a person who is going to get clean or someone who needs to come inside from living rough, that choice has to be theirs."
That’s why most homeless advocates agree that eliminating practices like panhandling is the right approach.
“What many of us say is, ‘We don’t want to help someone be good at being homeless. We want to help him get out of homelessness,’” Richardson-Moore said. “Panhandling helps people stay right where they are.”