Panhandlers in Kentucky: Are we helping or hurting?

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - You pull up at a stop light in Lexington, and just a few feet away, stands a man with a sign, saying he's hungry and homeless. What do you do? Give him a dollar or two, or ignore him?

It can be a real pull on the heartstrings. But handing out cash may be the exact wrong thing to do.

Billy Meade is asking for money as drivers stop on Maxwell at the Broadway Street intersection.

"I'm just trying to make a living. You know, I'm out on the street," Meade says, "hopefully I get my disability here pretty soon."

Meade also says he's a former U-S Marine from Magoffin County. He claims rheumatoid arthritis keeps him in a wheelchair.

In the 30-minutes we watch, drivers hand Meade cash, handfuls of change, a bottle of water and cigarettes.

We asked one driver, "when you see someone like this, that's asking for money, what goes through your mind?

"I think I have to help him, so I have no choice but to help him," the driver says.

"Everybody goes thru hard times." said another driver, "Never know if someone needs helps. I always help when I can."

There's a law in Lexington against panhandling or begging.

But as long as Meade stays on the sidewalk begging for money, police say he's not breaking the law.

Police can cite someone who is "in" the street, in a median, on private property or in a parking lot for a business like Wal-Mart.

Charlie Lanter, the Director of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention says, "If they're successful, then they have no incentive to go to a shelter or to go somewhere for food, or whatever their particular needs are..."

Police and people who work to help the homeless and needy in Lexington say it's a difficult law to enforce because officers must witness the panhandler taking money.

Fines for panhandling range from $50 to $100, but police find themselves citing someone who has little or no money to begin with.

"It's very difficult to look another human being in the eye when they're holding a sign that says hungry, please help, and say no," Lanter says.

But that's exactly what Lexington's Director of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention wants everyone to do. "The important thing for people to know is-if you give cash to someone who's on the street and holding a sign, that, that is often very harmful."

Lanter maintains that by handing cash to a panhandler, you are helping feed their addiction to alcohol or drugs, and removing any incentive to change their lifestyle.

"You've really undermined our efforts as a community to help that individual."

"Sometimes the offer of shelter, of a bed, of food, of buying them a meal, that's the only real incentive we have to get them to accept our help."

The owner of Sav's grill on South Limestone at Maxwell has a front row seat to one of the hot spots for panhandlers. Mamadou "Sav" Savane says they often work in groups of six to eight, and share the money they collect. "The money they're collecting is not to buy food. And they just go in that liquor store, the Signature liquor store, that's where they go buy their liquor."

He says the swarms of drunk panhandlers are hurting his business, especially outside his ice cream shop at the side walk tables.

Sav says he is working on getting city approval to put up a fence to protect his customers.

"By the time evening comes, they're totally drunk. And they can hardly stand up."

Sav says he's even witnessed people drop off food for the panhandlers, only to see them throw it away. "I swear to God they put the food in the garbage. They don't need it."

On a cold day in January, Ginny Ramsey told us during an interview, "We're so sad, that we lost one of our brothers from the street last night."

The tragedy of a life dependent on panhandling happened on January 11th this year when the body of man was found off Maxwell Street near a liquor store.

As we reported that day, he froze to death. But there's more to the story. Charlie Lanter says that man, 41-year old Robert Johnson, was a regular panhandler at Broadway and Maxwell Streets, and was often intoxicated. He says on the night of his death, he was offered a ride to a warm place to sleep by a group helping the homeless.

Johnson turned them down because Lanter says he was intoxicated. Later that night he fell, hit his head, and froze to death.

Lanter says he believes people who gave him money bear some responsibility. "Someone who was well intended, gave him that dollar, that bought that drink, that led to his death. If you want to give them something, give them information on how to get there, have them call 211, that's United Way's Resource Referral Hot Line number, they've got a list of all the shelters, all the food programs, this is a very generous community..."

Starting in the next few weeks, the city plans to launch a public service campaign to encourage people not to give money to panhandlers. The new effort is called "Change for the Better Lexington."

These information post cards list all the shelter addresses, and free meals offered every day. Plus it has the 211 hot line number and ways you can help without giving money to panhandlers.

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