I want to believe him. I want to believe my $5 will go toward food and water and better clothing.
I don’t want to think it was used to buy heroin for him to shoot under a bridge. I don’t want to believe it will go for a can of spray paint, or a six pack, or a bottle of booze instead of something of sustenance that will allow him to survive another day.
But I just don’t know what to believe, not about his reasons for holding a sign that reads, “Homeless and hungry … Anything’s a blessing. TY :),” or about his limp. I’ve had to limp before, for broken, sprained, and twisted and tweaked reasons, but I’ve never limped like that.
I’m talking about one of the two men I met Tuesday afternoon along the lanes of Interstate 70 Exit Ramp 2A between Woodsdale and Fulton. I spoke with W.Va. Del. Shawn Fluharty (D-3rd) about the complaints I’ve heard centered on the presence of panhandling at the Oglebay, Washington Avenue, and Elm Grove exits, and he told me he also had been asked by many Third House District constituents about what state laws were in place that could suppress the activity.
Del. Fluharty jokingly suggested I film a documentary, but I recommended we visit with those we could find. That’s exactly what we did Tuesday afternoon.
“The presence of panhandlers has increased recently, and I have heard concerns by constituents. How our society treats the less fortunate says a lot about who we are and the type of society was want to live in,” the lawmaker said. “Everyone sees them, and a lot of people have opinions on this issue. I think it is important for me, as a public servant, to gather the facts so that I can make an informed decision as to whether or not anything needs done.”
Gathering facts is what we think we did.
The 37-year-old, limping man introduced himself as “Bill.”
Bill told us he was from Martins Ferry, and he told us he graduated from high school. Others have offered many other bits of information, much of which I’ve proven untrue. It is true, however, that William Bender, or “Bill,” was tried and exonerated of charges last year involving the alleged recruitment of a minor on Facebook and that his online footprint indicates a few other arrests involving domestic-related incidents. Nothing, though, exists concerning drug possession, trafficking, or abuse, and he professes to be clean of all illegal substances.
The limp, he insisted, is real and is the result of an injury he suffered when he was employed by a local trucking company.
“My leg really hurts, and it doesn’t help that I am out here all day walking on it,” he said. “I’m not one to take medications. You see a lot of people getting addicted to drugs that way, and that’s something I choose not to do.
“When I did have my driver’s license, I was driving a semi a couple years back, and I hurt my leg when a steel coil that we were loading rolled back on it,” Bill said. “It hit me, and that was that. I haven’t been the same since. I don’t know what’s really wrong with it because I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor then, and I still can’t afford it now.”
Bill admitted, though, that he’s lost himself, and that he’s not quite sure how that happened.
“It’s day to day with me, really,” Bill said. “I met Sonny about two years ago, and I don’t know what I do without him. I stay anyplace where I can lay my head down, pretty much. A couple of nights I have gone with Sonny, and he showed me a spot underneath a bridge where I could sleep.
“People usually give me between $40-$50 each day, and I use that to get something to eat, and if it’s raining I may try to find a cheap motel room, but that’s getting harder and harder because the prices always go up because of all of those oil and gas guys who come into the Valley.”
This past Monday afternoon I saw Bill at this intersection shoeless, but later in the day a women offered a new pair of shoes. He was wearing them on Tuesday when we visited.
“Most of the people are very nice. Not all, but most,” he said. “It’s the people in the Valley, and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. I think it’s because they know that what has happened to me could happen to them some day. It happens to a lot of people.”
Sonny says he was born in Texas, but was real happy when he was in Louisiana. He told me he arrived to this area because of a girlfriend, but then the girlfriend kicked him out following an argument. That left him stuck here, he insisted. So, Sonny admitted, he’s walked up and down this rocky, muddy stretch of public land in order to survive for the past six years.
Sonny is a well-liked resident of local homeless shelters and has been a consistent overnighter at Youth Services System’s Winter Freeze Shelter in East Wheeling. He claimed he didn’t remember his age, and it would be difficult for me to guess it because of the reasons why Sonny’s appearance is so damn haggard. His beard and mustache are unmanaged, he’s missing some teeth, and he speaks wisely when talking about life in general, and I get the impression that it’s his scars that mean the most.
“I’ve got congestive heart failure and emphysema, so I’ve been working with some people to try to get disability,” Sonny said. “I’ve been out here for six years, and I was one of the first people to stay at the Winter Freeze Shelter at YSS.
“But why am I out here? Because I had to do what I had to do, and I collect about $20 or $30 during the day. And it ain’t true. I don’t use that money to drink or to do drugs. There are some who do that, but not me. I’m just being honest.”
But, the impression I developed during my brief time with Sonny is that he seems to be a sucker, of sorts, because of the females who are usually present on the same corner while he’s pacing and panhandling. He insists he’s helping them because they need it, but I’ve seen them sit there with cell phones and sodas and chips and bling on every finger of both hands.
Unfortunately, when they saw me approach, one of them told me to stay on the side on which I was standing. They weren’t going to talk to me, she shouted, and she also told me that I should just leave.
I tend to believe Sonny more than I do Bill, but I know why, too. Sonny has no roots here, really, and he’s managed to stay out of jail. That means there are few stories to tell about him, but that’s not the case with Bill. Bill is local. People have known him for years, and they haven’t been afraid to share their opinions on social media networks.
Even family members have shared true nuggets of Bill’s past because of the erroneous information that has been shared about him since he initially took to the streets to ask for help. They admit he gets into trouble often, but not for any involvement with drugs. Bill has been homeless, but they say that changes depending on whether he’s staying with a parent. His legal troubles have centered on domestic situations, and those incidents have led to the separation between him and his children. His childhood was a rough one in Martins Ferry, they say, as his parents didn’t have much, and a history of mental illness exists.
One family member described him as a nomad.
Law, Opinion, and Complaints
It is not a new activity, and governments reacted long ago.
The city of Wheeling has this ordinance currently on the books under Article 509 – Disorderly Conduct and Peace Disturbance. As indicated, it was approved and implemented in 1961:
509.07 BEGGING .
No person within the City for personal benefit shall beg alms or solicit charity of any other person on public streets of the City or in any building where public or private business is conducted. (1961 Code Sec. 535.02)
The state of West Virginia has addressed a small portion of this issue within the state code:
61-8-25. Requiring children to beg, sing or play musical instruments in streets; penalty.
Any person, having the care, custody, or control, lawful or unlawful, of any minor child under the age of eighteen years, who shall use such minor, or apprentice, give away, let out, hire or otherwise dispose of, such minor child to any person, for the purposes of singing, playing on musical instruments, begging, or for any mendicant business whatsoever in the streets, roads, or other highways of this state, and any person who shall take, receive, hire, employ, use or have in custody, any minor for the vocation, occupation, calling, service or purpose of singing, playing upon musical instruments, or begging upon the streets, roads or other highways of this state, or for any mendicant business whatever, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not less than five nor more than one hundred dollars.
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Panhandling, begging — the law refers to soliciting and taking money from the public with both terms, but municipal and state laws were erased earlier this year when the Supreme Court of the United States declined to review a Massachusetts-based case in January. Lower-level federal courts struck down the ban implemented in Worcester, stating that it was an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.
But there’s still a catch when it comes to those along the intersections and roadways in Wheeling and throughout the Upper Ohio Valley, said Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger. While their presence is as permissible as their pacing up and down the roadways, we must offer the cash, and they must not impede traffic in any way.
“Basically, the Supreme Court has said that it is illegal for a municipality to ban panhandlers,” explained Schwertfeger. “So thank you Supreme Court of the United States.
“If they obstruct traffic then it’s a different story, but I am not going to dedicate the resources so one of our officers can sit there and wait to see one of them going out in a roadway and holding up traffic. I’m not going to do that because we have several other things to keep our eyes on that’s far more important,” he said. “I get a ton of complaints about them, but every time I have to explain that the federal government has put the handcuffs on us on this one. Our hands are bound.”
But that does not mean, Schwertfeger insisted, that law enforcement will cease in searching for ways to curtail the activity when possible.
“Because of the non-action taken by Supreme Court, we have started looking at different options and angles that we can enforce when it comes to the panhandling activity we see so much of in Wheeling right now,” Schwertfeger said. “I can tell you that I have gone out and spoken with these people myself, and what I can tell you is that most of them are homeless, and they have their issues and their reasons.
“Now there are others that I still question as far as the reasons they are out there, and that’s not fair to people who are actually in need because no one knows who is genuine and who isn’t,” the chief continued. “What the public should understand is that if they experience something they don’t think is right, they should call us and tell us about it. That’s how we know something isn’t right.”
Del. Fluharty and I were discussing this issue, and we agreed on a number of things, including the fact that most people jump to conclusions based on a person’s appearance instead of factual information, and that every single person possesses his or her very own story.
“I was not raised to be judgmental of others, and I think it’s important for the government not to be in the judgment business,” Fluharty said. “Everyone has a story; that’s what my father always reminded me growing up, so I’m not going to pass judgment on anyone. My goal is to try to get a true understanding of what is going on.
“However, some of the social media posts raise valid concerns; when people choose to give money, they do not know exactly how it will be used,” he continued. “Ultimately, that is up to individual choice as to whether they want to give or not. They are here because of the generosity of the community. The homeless come here because they know they will be provided with food and shelter.
“I know that many people are not happy with the increase in panhandling, but a free society is not always a neat and orderly society,” Fluharty continued. “We are blessed to live in this community, and many in this community were raised to give to those who ask of us. Now, whether you want to give directly or through one of the many local charities is the choice of the individual. However, it is not a government solution.”
That is why the delegate does not plan to propose any new legislation intended to challenge the federal opinion.
“We live in a free country. The government is not there to interfere with individual liberties. Look, our state has massive problems. The abundance of panhandlers is a byproduct of the economic depression many in our state face today,” Fluharty said. “We should be spending time focusing on these bigger issues and not using the topic of panhandlers as a political tool.
“Americans have a fundamental right to be left alone by the government. Unless they are committing a crime, they should not be bothered,” he insisted. “If they are committing a crime, then they should be prosecuted. If the public safety is at risk along the roadways, then that’s an issue for law enforcement to address, and those laws are already on the books.”
You and I
A few motorists offered Bill and Sonny advice during our Tuesday visit. I heard one man suggested to Bill that he “get a job,” and another man told Sonny to “get off (his) roadway.”
We also have been offered “Tickets to Heaven” by a one-legged man in exchange for our hard-earned money; mothers have strolled along the exit ramps looking for cash for their sick kids; and there are the little old men like Sonny and the hurting men with limps like Bill’s. Wheeling, the Friendly City, is the gathering place for the region’s homeless because of the services rendered within the city and the lack of services offered anywhere else. While there are Salvation Army locations in Marshall and Belmont counties, there are no homeless shelters, soup kitchens, or Catholic Charities Neighborhood centers of homeless coalition offices.
Those are in Wheeling — East Wheeling, in fact.
“People have options when it comes to helping the homeless that are in Wheeling,” said Mayor Andy McKenzie. “They can choose to give the person along the exit ramps the money they want to give them, or they can contribute to the many organizations that we have so they can be sure that those dollars will, for sure, go toward helping the people who need it.
“While I am sure most of the people who are at those locations asking for help are really in need of help, I don’t know which ones those are nor does anyone else,” he continued. “What I do know for sure is that organizations like the Greater Wheeling Soup Kitchen, the YSS Winter Freeze Shelter, the Wheeling Homeless Coalition, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities do a lot of great work and that they take care of people who need the help.”
John Moses is the executive director of YSS, and it was he who opened the Winter Freeze Shelter for the first time six years ago. The refuge, in fact, opened one month early in November because of the frigid temperatures in an effort to fill the need that often surpasses demand at the Salvation Army shelter one street away.
And Moses is always quick to point out that mental illness, the local and national economies, and “bad luck” are the most popular reasons why men, women, and sometimes even children find themselves without shelter at any given time.
“It is true that most of us are only a few missed paychecks away from having to do the very same thing,” Moses said in March. “We have met many people over the past six years of the Winter Freeze Shelter, and it has taught us all a lot of things we didn’t know about homelessness in this valley.
“And it is true – everyone has their own story,” he said. “And I can tell you that the people in this area do care about the homeless because when we decided to open the shelter a month early many, many people started showing up at our doorstep to donate to the shelter.”
Both Sonny and Bill explained to Fluharty that they do not possess government-issued identification, and Sonny said he also does not have a birth certificate or a Social Security card. Because of the requirements stipulated by the federal “Real I.D. Law,” he needs both documents plus two bills to confirm his address in order to be issue identification by the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles.
Sonny doesn’t have an address either.
“The poor are among us. It’s a reality,” said Fluharty. “Panhandling is nothing new, and an increase only shows that more people are facing hard times. Focusing on keeping them out of sight does not eliminate the problem; it only attempts to cover the scars that face our state. We have numerous charities and civic organizations that already do a phenomenal job at providing direct relief. It has been efficient and does not burden taxpayers.
“As far as the mentally ill, the state already has procedures in place, and there is an efficient legal process to have the mentally ill evaluated and taken off the streets. The problem is those that could possibly be mentally ill do not know of these services or are not around others enough to receive the proper help.
“We will only see an increase in the number of mentally ill not receiving proper treatment if our state’s philosophy continues to be one that cuts funding to these critical services,” the lawmaker added. “It is my hope that the lawmakers in the state will start taking care of the people in West Virginia instead of following an agenda that originated outside of our state.”