Perpetual Lake Street panhandler Lester Davidson had a rap sheet with 70 arrests when he physically attacked a pedestrian who pulled out his cellphone and threatened to call police in September 2010. Davidson and the victim — who lives nearby — had crossed paths many times before.
"I said, 'I'm going to call police now,'" the victim told a crowd gathered for a panhandler seminar at the Oak Park Public Library on Nov. 22. "I had run into this individual many times before. ... I wish I had called earlier instead of just going back to my apartment and locking the door."
The seminar was jointly presented by the State's Attorney's Office, the Oak Park Police Department, the Downtown Oak Park business association, and social service agencies, including Oak Park Township and First United Church of Oak Park's Walk In Ministry. The panel addressed the mix of well meaning and easily intimidated residents and tourists who make Oak Park an attractive destination for career panhandlers.
"Oak Parkers are generous. We have very gracious people in our community," said State's Attorney Kelly Navarro. "This is not about being insensitive to problems and homelessness or cracking down on certain populations. This is about an aggressive person. If they ask for five dollars and you say no, they're going to be aggressive with you; they might fight you or kick you or spit on you."
The State's Attorney's Office opened an Oak Park Community Justice Center at 4 Chicago Ave. last year.
The presentation proposed two ways Oak Parkers can address chronic aggressive panhandlers: First, cooperate with law enforcement when panhandling crosses the line into petty crime. This means giving one's name to police and attending court dates to "give teeth" to local and state laws. Second, hand out palm cards with social service information, printed by Downtown Oak Park, instead of money.
Lester Davidson bragged to police that he made about $150 per day begging in Oak Park. He had been arrested in Oak Park nine times and spent 19 days in jail every time, only to return to what he referred to as his "lucrative" methods on Lake Street.
But things changed after the September attack, prosecutor David Potter said. The victim and witnesses gave their names to police and followed through with the case, showing up in court several times. Davidson was put on probation and ordered not to return to Lake Street between Harlem and Oak Park avenues, said Navarro.
"At first, the judge was reluctant to order that sentence. But when she saw the community members there, she was more willing to listen. For him, 19 days in jail was the cost of doing business."
Another chronic panhandler was finally given psychiatric treatment after stealing from Borders books and harassing customers numerous times.
Without citizens willing to participate in the court system, arrestees, "literally laugh at us as they're leaving the courthouse." Because no witnesses come forward, Navarro said, "our hands are tied." When citizens participate, prosecutors can move forward on panhandler cases. "We'll walk you through it. We're respectful of your time and your work schedules."
Oak Park police told of a balance between the rights of free speech and threats and intimidation. "If someone asks you for money, they are within their First Amendment rights," said Officer Mike Mangaser of the Oak Park Police Dept. "We're looking at the assaults, when they start yelling and calling you names."
Officers told of a "cat-and-mouse game," seeing the same people again and again daily around the village. "They're here because they're making money," said Beat Officer James Vonesh. "We're looking at the ones who are belligerent, especially to women." Police officers said local ordinances only allow them to fine panhandlers or remove their solicitation licenses. State laws have more lasting consequences, and alternate courts, such as Veterans Court and Mental Health Court, are expanding the options for law enforcement.
"Our goal is not to put people in jail," said Navarro. "We want to intervene and come up with [a program] that will turn the person's life around."
To that end, Pat Zubak, executive director of Downtown Oak Park, introduced the palm cards, which she said would be plentiful in every local business in the downtown district.
"We're printing thousands of these cards that merchants can give to customers as part of this campaign," she said.
The cards read, "If you need assistance ..." and give information about Township offices and Walk In Ministry at First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St. The back of the card lists PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) locations.
"I get asked for money every single day, and it's unpleasant every single day," said Zubak. "You feel like people have invaded your space. I am concerned about tourists and people who are shopping — what kind of impressions they have of Oak Park. I've seen the tourist buses pull up at Unity Temple and people getting off the bus — and the panhandlers are waiting right there. We had to remove the benches in front of Borders because of the panhandlers."
Christy Harris of Walk In Ministry said volunteers can direct people in crisis to resources for food, shelter and clothing. "The beauty of Oak Park is that we care about people and take care of people in an orderly manner," she said. The agency can distribute bus passes, sack lunches and help people threatened with eviction or utility cut-off threats.
"This is a generous community that doesn't have to be handing somebody money," Harris said. "Make a donation. Volunteer your time. It's a satisfying way to help someone."
Unfortunately, she admitted, career panhandlers often don't really want help, just money. She told of a male-female team who beg regularly at North and Harlem avenues. "We got them computer training at the library and tried to help them, but they're still out there."
Navarro said palm cards have been tried in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. She acknowledged the cards are "another way to say no" and that career panhandlers are unlikely to use the services on the cards. "These people," she said, pointing to a handful of manila folders representing arrest records of local panhandlers, "are looking for money."
However, she said local social services would not stop letting people know help was available. "You have to be asked to the party again and again."