For Raleigh beggars, it's a handout life

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comJanuary 5, 2012 

— William Earl Sanders and James Edward Harris have each been charged with illegal begging in Raleigh more than 30 times, most recently during a round-up on the day after Christmas.

After they pled guilty to panhandling without a permit last week and were released, Sanders and Harris said they intend to continue begging for spare change from stopped motorists at busy intersections.

They say begging is more honorable than resorting to crime to put food in their stomachs and keep a roof over their heads. A few hours holding up a sign can yield $10, $20 or sometimes even $40.

Begging "goes back to the Bible," said Sanders, 50, as he stood on the sidewalk outside the jail.

"Lazarus was begging in front of the rich man's house," he said.

Panhandlers do not refer to what they do as begging; they use the term "holding up a sign."

Sanders and Harris, 54, were among eight people police charged with begging without a permit on the day after Christmas. Raleigh police issued more than 400 begging citations last year, a five-year high.

Police said they were not cracking down on begging but were merely enforcing an ordinance already on the books.

As he sentenced them to time served and released them last week, Wake County District Court Judge Ned Mangum told Sanders and Harris that Raleigh police were indeed cracking down on unlawful panhandling, and instructed them to "make sure you are lawfully begging."

Raleigh city officials have grappled with creating an effective panhandling ordinance since the mid-1990s when the General Assembly passed legislation that enabled cities and towns to strengthen their codes. Panhandlers were issued free permits, but unless a panhandler intimidated people or impeded traffic, the police rarely made arrests.

More rules for beggars

The ordinance was strengthened over the years and in 2000, the city forbade anyone from standing in the streets for the purpose of begging motorists for cash or work. They also outlawed what officials described as "aggressive begging."

The ordinance was changed again in March. The new ordinance prohibited panhandlers from soliciting near banks, ATMs and restaurants. Nor can they directly approach someone unless that person has agreed to give them money.

Tougher panhandling laws are currently in vogue in some parts of the region. Wake County's Board of Commissioners recently passed new panhandling regulations. Johnston County on Tuesday followed suit, passing an ordinance that will require panhandlers to show a photo ID and pass a background check.

Even though the permit issued by Raleigh is free, those arrested last week said it has too many stipulations regarding where they can stand, how close they may be to ATMs, banks and school zones, and even how close they may get to a vehicle to ask for money.

"It's not really a permit," Sanders said. "It tells you, 'you can't do this' and 'you can't do that.' It's really left up to the officer's discretion to decide to arrest you."

One of the eight arrested, Danny Spells, said he went to the police department to obtain a permit after he was released from jail. He said he became disheartened, though, when an officer at the downtown precinct told him that it's next to impossible to panhandle in Raleigh without being arrested, even with a permit.

On the rainy day that police arrested them, Harris was displaying a sign to passing motorists that read, "Thanks. Bless You So Much For Giving. Happy Holidays." Spells' sign proclaimed, "Need Help," while Sanders' simply read, "Hungry."

'Desperate times'

Spells, 46, described panhandling as "an extreme measure in extreme times."

Spells said he has worked as a landscaper with Quality Lawn Care in Raleigh for the past five years. But work has been skimpy lately and he only worked one day the week after Christmas. He rents a room for $125 a week on Idlewild Avenue. Most mornings he goes to the Sweepstakes internet cafe on South Saunders Street to check Craigslist and email to see if there's any work.

Lately, he's taken to holding up a sign alongside the road.

"I normally wouldn't be doing this," he said. "It's not something I really like doing because it's degrading. But like I say, these are desperate times."

It was not always like this for any of the panhandlers who shared jumbled bits and pieces of their lives after they were released from jail.

Military stints that abruptly ended, marriages that were casualties of crack cocaine addictions, academic dreams that crashed and burned, dead-end jobs and mental disability all led them down a path where holding up signs asking motorists for money became a viable economic option.

Sanders moved to Raleigh with his parents and grew up in Southeast Raleigh. He graduated from Broughton High School in 1979. He attended the old King's College for two years and majored in business administration before dropping out.

"I was working, man, as a salesman, stock clerk and delivery person with Sherwin Williams," he said.

Sanders said he enlisted in the Navy in the 1980s and served two years before he was honorably discharged. He returned to Raleigh, married and worked odd jobs.

Things were going fairly well until his wife got addicted to crack cocaine. Soon, he, too, was hooked on crack and alcohol.

He spent time in California, but returned to Raleigh in the late 1990s, still addicted to drugs and homeless.

This is how Sanders started panhandling:

"Some guy from Atlanta said, 'We ought to do that,' " he said. "I been doing it ever since."

The police arrested Sanders three times in December for unlawful begging and seven times last year. Despite the repeated arrests - Sanders figures at least 30 times over the past 10 years - he refuses to stop. He likens the people he sees each day to family.

"Most people enjoy me. They say I am a good conversationalist," he said. "People socialize with me, they pray with me, they help me make it through my day."

Arrests don't stop them

Harris grew up in Apex and graduated from Cary High School in 1976. One year later, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was there about a year before he received a medical discharge.

"I had to get out early because of a mental disorder," Harris said. He returned to Raleigh and was soon homeless. Trouble with the law worsened an already bleak situation.

Harris said he's holding up the sign until he can get help from the Veterans Administration. He wants the VA to provide him with a homeless voucher so that he can find a place to stay. Harris, like Sanders, said he has been arrested by Raleigh police more than 30 times for illegal begging.

"That's the Raleigh thang," Harris said. "You got to pay the price to hold the sign."

As for the motorists who roll down their vehicle windows to hand him money, Harris said they are very understanding.

"They tell us to be careful," he said. "And, 'I hope you don't go to jail today,' and that they will pray for me."

News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

McDonald: 919 829-4533

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