They sit on the shoulder of the road near the Interstate 74 off-ramps in Bettendorf, holding up cardboard signs scrawled with their pleas for help.
“Hungry and homeless, any help appreciated. God bless.”
“Homeless family, please help. I have a baby son. God’s love.”
And the rather incoherent: “Homeless in needs places help.”
In recent weeks, hardly a day goes by when they are not there.
“This is the only way I can get money, so I’ve got to do it,” said Ron Snipes, 42, who panhandled on a recent morning near the off-ramp at Interstate 74 and Middle Road. “I get to set my own hours, and I meet a lot of nice people.”
Snipes is one of 12 panhandlers registered with the city of Bettendorf. Police Chief Phil Redington said that number is up a few from previous years.
Bettendorf requires panhandlers to get licenses if they’re going to sit or stand by the off-ramps and solicit money. The licenses are free, and there are no requirements for obtaining one. Many do not have identification and list the same address: 1 Anyplace Drive, Bettendorf.
The city performs background checks on the applicants, but even if they have a criminal record, they’re not denied a license. Many of them do have criminal records.
“We just want to know who’s out there and what we’re dealing with,” Redington said. “That way, if there’s a problem at an intersection, we know who we’re dealing with.”
Bettendorf council members enacted the law to create a way to offer the panhandlers help, he said.
But is that help accepted?
Snipes doesn’t mince words about why he panhandles. “I have a mental health problem and a problem with authority,” he said. “I can’t stand a boss. I don’t need one. I’m not able to work, so this is what I’m doing. Thank God for the ones that do give.”
At about that time, a woman in a minivan drove by and threw a handful of pennies at Snipes. “Here, I don’t have any bills, but you can have my change,” she said. As the pennies rolled into the roadway, Snipes went after them, thanking the woman.
Although Snipes said he makes between $10 and $15 per day, other panhandlers said they make as much as $30 per day. One man said he panhandles because he cannot find a job, while another said he’s waiting to be approved for government disability payments.
Of those interviewed, two said they stay at the Sisters of Humility shelter in Davenport, one said he stays with friends and a fourth said he lives with his family.
“I would rather do this with my mental problems than let the taxpayers support me,” Snipes said. “I could go to jail and have everything supplied to me.”
People sometimes yell out the window at him to get a job, he said. “I tell them I’ve got one. You wouldn’t like me if I gave up this job. It used to be that if something wasn’t tied down and I wanted it, it was mine.”
A review of Iowa courts records showed that Snipes has been convicted of burglary.
He’s also had a turf war problem in Bettendorf.
Snipes is not supposed to be panhandling right now. He and another registered panhandler are banned for six months from the practice because they got into a turf dispute near the off-ramp at I-74 and Spruce Hills Drive. Snipes said he thought he was banned only from the Spruce Hills drive location, but not at other exits.
Spruce Hills Drive is a popular place to panhandle because it’s on the bus line, Snipes said. “The other panhandlers will try to rough you up to get your corner. The police will step in and say, ‘You better watch it or you both will go.’”
Although Snipes was the only panhandler interviewed for this story who would give his name, three others who claimed to be registered in the city said Bettendorf is the best place to panhandle because the police don’t bother them. They said officers in Davenport generally run them off.
Davenport Police Capt. David Struckman said the department has received two complaints about panhandlers since January. Both were for incidents at I-74 and 53rd Street.
On March 19, Davenport police responded to that location after receiving a call that three people were panhandling there. Police observed the trio from the parking lot of nearby Harvest Bible Chapel.
Steven Douglas Clawson, 47, of 1825 W. 40th St., Davenport, was obstructing traffic and putting himself and others in harm’s way, police say. That violates the city’s panhandling ordinance. Bettendorf’s ordinance also prohibits panhandlers from entering the traveled portion of the roadway.
Clawson was handcuffed, put in the back of a squad car and given a citation. Police released him from custody after confiscating his sign, which claimed he was homeless, had a baby and needed help.
According to the police report, Clawson told police, “Everyone knows I solicit money from cars, and I’m going to keep doing it.”
Clawson has a lengthy criminal record.
Clawson, whose cell phone number was listed on the police report, could not be reached for comment. A recording claimed the number could not receive messages at the time. At least one panhandler in Bettendorf also has been observed talking on a cell phone, Redington said.
According to the police report, the two other men — one of whom had the same address as Clawson — were not cited because they were not actively engaged in approaching vehicles during the officers’ observation. Still, one of them was instructed to leave the area and was informed he was not allowed to solicit people for money, according to the police report.
Davenport enacted its panhandling ordinance in March 2003, and Bettendorf began enforcing its ordinance in December 2004. “You can’t just run them out,” Bettendorf City Attorney Greg Jager said of the panhandlers, who are constitutionally entitled to beg for money.
Randall Wilson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said while the ACLU does not give such laws its “good governing seal of approval,” there is no serious concern about them as long as they are applied fairly, consistently and conservatively.
“We would hope that the city would not attempt to interpret and enforce this ordinance to the disadvantage of sidewalk protesters, people asking for directions or beggars who observe the boundary between street and sidewalk,” Wilson said of the Davenport law.
Enforcement involves officer discretion in Davenport, Struckman said. The officer may choose to issue a verbal or written warning, issue a written citation or take the offender to jail. “When officers, acting on a citizen complaint, respond to the location, sometimes they do not actually witness the ‘in the roadway’ violation. Most of the time they do not, due to call load with higher priority calls, establish surveillance but instead tell the panhandler to move on.”
Public safety is the main reason for the ordinance, Struckman said. “Think about it. If the panhandler successfully garners a donation from a motorist, what happens? Someone has to stop and contact has to be made to complete the donation.”
Lt. John Hitchcock of the Moline Police Department said the Illinois vehicle code contains a provision that prohibits people from standing near a highway for the purpose of soliciting contributions, unless it’s permitted by municipal ordinance. “We don’t allow them over here,” he said. “We just go up there and tell them it’s time to move on.”
Panhandlers occasionally show up on the median of the entrance to SouthPark Mall, Hitchcock said. “We try to get down there and get them out. People who are in that situation are probably not there because they want to be.”
Help is offered
Bettendorf’s ordinance is designed to provide panhandlers with access to resources that can help them become more self-sufficient. The permits are issued by the city’s community services officer, who can set up the applicants with the police department’s social worker.
“But they don’t ask for help,” Redington said. “They wouldn’t keep coming back if they weren’t making decent money.”
Jager stressed that people need to know that the licensed panhandlers in Bettendorf have been offered help. “If somebody is standing on the corner asking for money, they’re asking for money because it’s easier than doing something else.”
Struckman agreed. “With all of the social service agencies supplying aid to people, there is no need for panhandling.”
Some donors give despite doubts.
People who give the panhandlers money say they know the beggars’ claims may be false or that they might buy something other than food with the money.
“Sometimes it is irritating, because there are awkward feelings when they stare at you with their hopeless eyes, but I’m a believer in karma, and I can’t help but give a dollar or two,” said David Cady of Colona, Ill. “What if that was your dad on the side of the road? Even if they go buy a beer with it, it made them happier and their life a little bit more tolerable that day.
“Besides, what’s $2 to me? I’m not hurting without it.”
Dori Garro of Rock Island said she sometimes give. She had an interesting experience recently with a panhandler at I-74 and Spruce Hills Drive. “He was right at my window with a sign, ‘Please help, homeless family.’ My 7-year-old starting asking questions like, ‘What is he doing here?’ and ‘Why does he need help?’”
She explained to her son that he must not have a job for some reason and his family doesn’t have a place to live. “As we were pulling away he said to me, ‘Mom, how do you know if he’s telling the truth?’ And that, I didn’t have an answer to.”