A month ago the city of Parkersburg posted signs around town asking the public not to give to panhandlers. But some people still do. And some panhandlers say the signs aren’t just ineffective. They’re insulting. Even defamatory.
On Sundays, you’re likely to find Charles Kelly perched on a stool at the intersection in front of the Wal-Mart in South Parkersburg. He’s wearing headphones and theres a sign pinned to a backpack in front of him that reads ‘Disabled Veteran. Please Help. God Bless You.’
“The main reason I actually started panhandling two years ago was, basically, this right here. You see what that says there? Disconnect notice,” said Kelley, referring to a letter he received from the electric company.
He served in Japan during the Vietnam War. He receives benefits but, still, he says it’s not enough.
“I get $1,055 dollars a month,” he said. "Out of that comes rent, electric, food. I get $16 in food stamps. How’s a person to live on $16 worth of food? That's impossible!”
Kelly said he can’t work because he injured his hip while he was in the service.
Within 20 feet of him is another sign on a metal pole sticking out of the ground right in that same median where he sits.
Until recently, the city prohibited panhandling in some areas, and Kelly got a ticket for $137. The ACLU took up his case and, in August, Kelly took a drug test at Marietta Memorial Hospital to prove he wasn't abusing drugs or alcohol.
As a result of the ACLU’s case on behalf of Kelly, the United States District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia issued a preliminary injunction, which stopped the city from giving out the tickets to panhandlers.
“The city had an ordinance which required individuals to get a permit. The city only gave those permits to organizations and not individuals who were panhandling on behalf of themselves, even if they sought one,” said Jennifer Meinig, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia.
In early October, the city posted signs asking the public not to give to panhandlers and then, about a week later, the city council repealed the panhandling ordinance.
Just two weeks later, the city passed a different ordinance, one outlawing what they deem “aggressive” solicitations. Mayor Robert Newell says it’s a matter of public safety.
“These people up here are so stupid that when the light is green, they will stop and dig through their purse--backing up traffic at the Memorial Bridge to give them a buck,” said Newell. “To give some guy who’s wacked out, half laying in the grass a dollar. We thought, ‘well maybe we can educate the public with these signs.’ People really do believe they’re helping and they’re not."
Mayor Newell says there’s better ways of helping the poor. He also says the problem panhandlers are not homeless people.
“Some of them even drive to the location. They’re not homeless at all,” he said.” You can follow them to their houses and we know where they live. They are doing this purely for alcohol and drugs and everything else. But certainly alcohol."
But the ACLU says not all panhandlers are addicts -- and it’s defamatory to claim they are. Charles Kelly says it’s certainly not true in his case - and he says he’s not an aggressive panhandler.
While Kelly panhandles, he sits calmly perched on a fold-out stool. He doesn’t approach anyone or knock on windows of cars. Cars stop at the stoplight and many people glare over at him. But a few passersby hand Kelly some sort of groceries--like a bag of pepperoni rolls from the Wal-Mart deli. James Workman of nearby Rockport rolled down his window and hands Kelly a few dollar bills.
Kelly believes he has a right to do what he’s doing.
“It’s just like, look here. Burger King sign up there,” he said, pointing to signs in the shopping plaza adjacent to where he was sitting. “That’s basically advertising, just like my sign. Wal-Mart, Bob Evans, Lowes---all advertising. I’m advertising. I’m advertising my situation, they’re advertising their businesses. Basically, that’s all it is.”
Kelly said the sign he’s sitting under hasn’t reduced the amount of money he gets from passersby. The ACLU hasn’t made a decision yet about whether to challenge the signs in court.