LOUISVILLE (WHAS11) – Panhandling--or begging for money--is not a crime. In Kentucky, it is a first amendment right.
A Kentucky Supreme Court decision in 2017 struck down a Lexington law that restricted where and how people could beg for money – dictating begging protected free speech.
The justices ruled that the ordinance singled out and restricted a certain type of speech – begging – making it a crime while allowing other forms of speech.
“Someone standing at a prominent Lexington intersection displaying a sign that reads ‘Jesus loves you’, or one that says ‘Not my President’ has no fear of criminal liability under the ordinance but another person displaying a sign on public streets reading ‘Homeless please help’ may be convicted of a misdemeanor,” Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. wrote in his opinion.
That ruling prompted Louisville Metro Council to repeal portions of a similar law that restricted begging in Louisville in early 2018.
One year later, WHAS11 is investigating the business of begging.
THE BUSINESS OF BEGGING
Everyone with a sign makes the claim.
The three H's: hungry, homeless, help.
“If you're out here, it's for a reason, things didn't go right,” Jeff Weston explained.
At the intersection of Brook and Broadway, you can find Weston and a congregation of others clutching cardboard signs.
“I didn't want to be homeless, not at all,” Weston said.
He says that intersection is a prime panhandling spot because of the constant flow of traffic off the interstate.
Jeff Weston said he is as advertised though and is currently staying at Wayside.
He is homeless, yes, but even he acknowledges he doesn't have to be hungry. There are several places in town serving hundreds of free meals each day.
The 56-year-old says he begs for money to gather cash for the other things—cigarettes and soda pop.
Weston isn’t the only one out asking for money in Louisville, many say the daily rate of panhandlers out and about appears to be increasing.
“It's a business,” said Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith (D-District 4). “It's almost like there is recruitment, there's orientation, there's training, there's communication, there's strategy.”
Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith represents the downtown district.
“We've got a new guy there...ah, two folks...see it's a shift change,” Sexton-Smith said.
She believes some street beggars are organized.
Possibly, like the guys at the bottom of the Third Street off-ramp, at rush hour.
Our camera’s captured two guys, working two spots, at the same time and then just one guy accepting handouts for a while, then joining his buddies off to the side for a smoke break, and then it’s to someone else's turn to stand at the traffic light and hold the sign.
Another Metro Council member feels the organized begging can be found throughout areas of Jefferson County.
“It's probably occurring in almost every district,” said Councilwoman Marilyn Parker (R-District 18).
In Parker’s district, panhandlers frequently return to Hurstbourne and Shelbyville Road, as well as pocket pennies or whatever change they can get by Oxmoor Mall.
“A lot of these folks are working in tandem or working in groups,” Councilwoman Parker said.
WHAS11 video caught coordinated efforts at the Gene Snyder exit to the Paddock Shops and we showed the video to Councilwoman Parker.
“She is an amputee it looks like, but she gets around quite well, and doesn’t really need the use of that wheelchair,” Parker commented.
During evening rush, the woman with the wheelchair worked in the median on Brownsboro Road, while a guy covered the exit ramp. Over the course of an hour, they got lucky here and there with every red light.
Legally, they're not supposed to be there, they're supposed to be on the sidewalk.
When it was time to go, home wasn't within walking distance, they needed a ride, it was a long one.
The WHAS11 iTeam followed the couple as they got on a TARC bus and followed close behind through Springhurst to St. Matthews, St. Matthews over to Old Louisville.
An hour later when they finally reached their stop at West Oak and 7th.
The White Castle on Broadway was their destination.
The woman with the wheelchair previously holding a sign for help could be seen holding a smartphone.
Parker said, once she saw the video, it was “certainly not ethical.”
“We've heard stories,” Parker said. “The person is standing on the street corner, they're soliciting funds, and there's an automobile four blocks down the road waiting to take them to another location,” Parker said.
“I’m sure there’s people out here that are dishonest,” Weston told us while asking for money but assured us he was homeless.
“He was in dirty, dirty clothes, dirty clothes, and I watched him, and he left, and he walked over to McDonalds, and I wondered where he was going. He went and stood out behind a brand-new Escalade, took off his dirty clothes, and he had nice shorts on and stuff, and he got in that Escalade and drove away,” Weston said.
Bogus beggars make tough times for Jeff Weston even harder.
“I've had one guy drive by and spit at me,” Weston said.
These are times when the city wants to attract big businesses, not more people in the business of asking for cash.
“It's not a good visual for our city,” Parker said.
“It's not breaking the law, it's not breaking the law,” Sexton Smith said. “We're trying to deter unethical behavior from real needs, and to be able to separate the two is going to be difficult.”
THE STRATEGY OF PANHANDLING
A dollar here, a dollar there – people are begging for money practically everywhere.
“We’re starting to see this and all throughout Jefferson County,” Sexton Smith said.
Like real estate, soliciting for money is all about location, location, location.
And begging for change can really add up but many of the givers know the game.
“I love that truck,” Weston shouted from the sidewalk where he stood with his sign.
“Some of you guys be richer than us,” the man in the truck shouted. “I saw a lady be at super America on Cane Run, I seen her run across the street and jump in a car prettier than mine.”
“People have told me they have seen, there's someone with a van or there may be a number of vans that actually drop people off in different areas for panhandling, and then pick them up,” Sexton Smith said.
“They know exactly how far they can go and what they can and what they cannot do,” Sexton-Smith said.
That includes group efforts; one guy mans the traffic light for a while, then takes a smoke break with two other guys, and then one of those guys takes his turn begging for money.
“Most of the folks who are professionally panhandling, they know the law,” Sexton Smith said.
THE LAW BEHIND PANHANDLING
The city had to rework its law restricting beggars on the street.
“You cannot regulate it,” Jon Fleischaker, a first amendment attorney, said.
The rest of the public is allowed to be in the area where some solicit for money.
“You cannot regulate it because we have a right to do it,” Fleischaker said.
Louisville's law had to change because of a challenge to Lexington's law.
“Our constitutional freedoms centered around a panhandler,” Fleischaker said.
Dennis Champion - arrested for panhandling - became a champion for First Amendment rights when, two years ago, he challenged his citation and subsequent arrest all the way up to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
“It was a good decision, a right decision,” Fleischaker said.
The justices didn't buy the public safety argument.
“It didn't cause any traffic problems, he was just standing there,” Fleischaker said.
Fleischaker, who built a law career centered on fighting for free speech says the city of Lexington overreached.
He argues you can't silence a beggar from personal fundraising, when someone else, for example, is directing traffic to a car wash to raise money as well.
“Unless they prohibit that for everybody, with any message, they have no chance of that being legal,” Fleischaker said.
“I'm not sure, when once you cross the line of soliciting dollars, if that's still considered free speech,” Parker said, although she disagrees with the opinion.
“We just have to go by what the supreme court decided, whether we like it or not,” Parker said.
Join the conversation on Facebook. Where to do you see people begging for money?
ECONOMIC GROWTH vs. PANHANDLING
With economic growth on the line, Parker feels the city can't afford to do nothing.
“It's not a good visual for our city,” Parker said. “We need to come up with solutions that we can deter the panhandling, but we can offer, we can redirect the dollars in appropriate way.”
One way is the "Positive Change" campaign. The campaign boxes can be found throughout Downtown Louisville.
“We have raised over $10,000 at this point,” Rebecca Matheny, the Louisville Downtown Partnership Executive Director, said.
The "Louisville Downtown Partnership" collects for the Coalition For The Homeless.
“You never have any idea what you're paying for if you hand somebody money on the street,” Matheny said. “It could be giving someone their last fix.”
Needy or not, Matheny said it is bad business and she has heard complaints.
“You don't want them to panhandle, then you shouldn't give them money,” Matheny said.
SOLUTIONS FOR PANHANDLING
At least one city leader is looking for other solutions.
“One of the places I went to look in searching for some solutions was Elizabethtown,” Councilwoman Parker said.
Elizabethtown exercised its First Amendment rights with its own signs.
Free speech to "Keep the Change."
“And then refers to the website,’ Jamie Land, the chief of police for the Elizabethtown Police Department said.
Etowncares.com redirects to the United Way of Central Kentucky where people can "Give Effectively.”
“We're just trying to curb behavior,” Chief Land said.
And for those who step off the "curb” while asking for money.
“There is a state statute that does not allow people to stand in the roadway and collect money,” Land said.
Elizabethtown Police then had officer’s stakeout panhandlers.
“Basically, it was just an overtime detail,” Land said.
Those officers wrote 42 tickets for stepping into traffic, most of them were from out of town but some were from out of state.
Jeff Weston happens to be one of them.
“This is where I’ll get a ticket...gracias,” Weston said.
But he says it paid off.
“Last year in Elizabethtown, by Walmart, I collected $400 before Christmas in five hours,” Weston said.
“It's by the grace of God that, that happened,” Weston said.
The 56-year old claims he isn't going back though and that works for Elizabethtown.
“We were seeing as many as ten at different intersections throughout the city,” Land said.
The approach may even work for Louisville.
“Now we typically see around two at a time,” Land said.
It’s the type of change Elizabethtown wants to keep.