Taking a closer look at panhandling in Oak Park

Cops, business districts and service agencies discuss a new approach

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By Jean Lotus

Contributing Reporter

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."

Reader Comments

24 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Hands Off  

Posted: December 2nd, 2011 10:02 AM

18-1-4 REGULATION OF SOLICITORS FOR FUNDS: Solicitors for funds must comply with an Act to Regulate Solicitation and Collection of Funds for Charitable Purposes (chapter 23, Illinois Revised Statutes 1977 sec. 5101 et seq), if applicable, and must register with the Village Clerk at least three (3) days prior to soliciting funds. The applicant in registering must furnish all the information required in the application for license provided in Section 18-1-2 of this Chapter and evidence of complian

Hands Off  

Posted: December 2nd, 2011 10:01 AM

Solicitors for funds for organizations that have had a fixed place of operation in Oak Park for over two (2) years shall be exempt from registering under this Article, providing said organization has on file in the Village of Oak Park, at a place accessible to the Village Clerk, a list of names and addresses of its solicitors available for inspection; and providing that said organization is in compliance with the Act to Regulate Solicitors referred to in this Section. http://www.sterlingcodifie

Hands Off  

Posted: December 2nd, 2011 10:00 AM

16-1-1 NUISANCE DEFINED It shall constitute a nuisance to commit any offense which is in fact a nuisance or which is a nuisance according to the common law, or which is made such by any ordinance of the Village or the Statutes of this State, and shall include any act, occupation or use of property or premises or equipment, or structure of any kind which A. Shall annoy, injure or endanger the safety or health of the public B. Shall offend public decency C. Shall unlawfully interfere with, obstruc

Hands Open  

Posted: December 2nd, 2011 9:39 AM

Bob, my address is.......

Bob Simpson from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: December 2nd, 2011 9:37 AM

The article focuses on criminal panhandlers who commit assaults. Most panhandlers aren't like that. I give money to panhandlers regularly and will continue to do so. Palm cards are fine, but people need cash in our uber-capitalist society.

Dawn from Oak Park  

Posted: November 29th, 2011 6:32 PM

It's too bad this seminar was during the day on a weekday. I never know if I should give money or not, and have wondered about giving information for other assistance to panhandlers. There are stories of people making $150 a day panhandling that stick in the public consciousness, but I can't help but think that in this economy, some people asking for help must legitimately need help. I would use the palm cards if they were available to me.

Phil of Ideas  

Posted: November 29th, 2011 5:01 PM

Get some of the local gun nuts (and we seem to have plenty)to shoot and kill (ie hunt) the panhandlers. Thay aren't truly humans, are they?

99 Percent  

Posted: November 29th, 2011 3:05 PM

But Like you totally owe us something.

Violet Aura  

Posted: November 29th, 2011 9:43 AM

To Jean Lotus, reporter: Do you know of any place that CITIZENS can get these cards to hand out when we are asked for money? Please update if so! I have been meaning to get over to the Township and ask them to do this and I am glad they have found the need to do so. I see panhandlers getting free coffee and snacks from businesses but if they can get subsidized by the village, maybe it's okay. I mean, the homeless should be able to get some hot coffee at the very least! It's cold out there...

Violet Aura  

Posted: November 29th, 2011 9:39 AM

I do feel bad about it because there are lots of mentally ill people on the street these days. They may also have an addiction but still. I did see a very uncomfortable scene transpire at that bagel shop on Lake Street (can't spell it!). Obviously, some do-gooder wanted to "help" a pandhandler asking for money for "food" and so she gave him money to buy his own stuff at the bagel place and he went along with it all the way to the checkout and then claimed he didn't want the food! LOL @ her face!

WAP from OakPark  

Posted: November 29th, 2011 8:29 AM

When approached I let the panhandler know that I don't give money to individuals but to charities - I don't feel guilt but have had several Oak Parkers say that they could "never" say that and that they always try to "help" so I am glad to see the issue being honestly addressed.

rez  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 11:08 PM

Go to a lot of other countries and you'll see that most of the panhandlers are either missing limbs, or are mentally disabled. Come to the US and you see that the majority of panhandlers have all the limbs and can think just right, some have substance abuse issues to support. There's a culture of entitlement that exists in the US that feeds this problem, and does nothing to inspire people to find work.

OP Guy  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 11:01 PM

It's easy, it someone get aggressive, police can fine them. OPPD are great at fining people for weird parking violations, it's time to put their fining skills to the test in this situation. Aggressive panhandlers won't fine OP that lucrative if they loose money when they come here. If someone asks me for money, I say a simple "NO", and that gets the message across. I feel no guilt, and a don't apologize for not giving them money, because I give to charities that I know go to good use.

Professor Peter Van Nostrand   

Posted: November 28th, 2011 6:29 PM

My statistical analysis shows it is better to beg & receive.

Violet Aura   

Posted: November 28th, 2011 6:20 PM

(cont.) I have been wanting cards to pass out to people! I hate not doing anything or just saying "I'm sorry" (One dude said to me: "That's right, you ARE sorry" but to his credit he apologized when next we spoke.)

Violet Aura  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 6:18 PM

There's an old (as in his 80s!) guy out there and the Wed. Journal even did a piece on him getting arrested for panhandling. They drove him to his sister's place in Melrose Park and he told her to get $80 out of his drawer to pay for the fine (bail?)! LOL- he dresses in rags and carries around a Hefty bag and I still see people in OPRF giving him money! I get frustrated because I know it's not solving the problem; it's ridding them of guilt. I tell people to go to the OP Township. (cont.)

Schmiegle from op  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 5:24 PM

This perfectly captures the problem: predatory individuals who prey, impinge upon, and capitalize on our "grace and generosity". There is a palpable "hit" to quality of life because of these beggars - the majority don't want "palm cards" directing them to social services. They want money and they know which community tolerates their existence.

Jerry Hudson from Phoenix  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 4:43 PM

Yes, by all means be sensitive to the rights of these bums. While setting up some hoops for the citizens they hassle to jump through. Somehow Rudy was able to get rid of the "squeegee men" in NYC. Why can't Oak Park figure out a way to put a hitch in the getalongs of these pests?

Sillt  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 1:22 PM

I'll use your own words: I think people are loosing interest in your always NEGATIVE, ALL problems approach with the folks at Village Hall.

David Letterman from The Late Show  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 12:55 PM

Uhhhhhh, you got any gum?

Eilene McCullagh Heckman from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 12:09 PM

I've seen the same woman by the Jewel on Madison street asking for money to buy diapers for her baby for months. Some kind hearted person DID buy her a package of diapers... and then she proceeded to try to sell the package of diapers to someone over on the next block. I've also offered... MANY TIMES to call the police and have them help the person find temporary shelter. 99% of the time I've gotten excuses and refusals... and "the police won't help us" sorts of statements. But for the one woman and her two kids who were accepting... the OPPD was more than happy to help them get to somewhere warm until they could find the women's shelter. Career panhandlers are salespeople..If you offer non-monitary help and start getting excuses... walk away. If you offer to make a phone call, or give directions to the emergency shelter and they take you up on it... maybe then a couple of bucks would be a nice gesture. I give out copies of the "Homeless Helpsheet" that First Unitarian Church provides with a list of phone numbers for organizations that help the homeless. I've never had one refused yet.

Phil of Ideas  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 11:48 AM

I know a guy who caught a fish this big (arms extended thusly). Can I confirm it? No, but the fisherman was driving a Cadillac, just like Fred's example and Reagan's famously bogus "welfare queen."

Fred Tamburino from Oak Park   

Posted: November 28th, 2011 10:53 AM

There was a panhandler that had a home in OakBrook he use to park his Cadilac in the parking garage and panhandle and he would make 100 a day

jstjen71  

Posted: November 28th, 2011 10:32 AM

$150/day! This guy makes more money than I do in a month! TAX FREE!!!

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