INDIANAPOLIS - Panhandlers have stepped up their efforts to collect donations at Indianapolis street corners during the recent cold weather, but police citations and a hidden camera investigation by the Call 6 Investigators have called some of their tactics into question.
"I think it's ridiculous. They stand out here all day and make more money than we do," said Kylee Anderson, who said she likes to help people who are truly needy. She was reacting to hidden camera footage from the Call 6 Investigators.
One man was recorded in his panhandling routine for five days, spanning two weeks, along East 56th Street and Interstate 465 on the east side.
He walked with a pronounced limp, lifting one leg into the air like a marching step, and he carried a sign that proclaimed he was homeless and hungry.
"When I was a kid, when I was 8-years-old, some kids pushed me in front of a school bus," he told an undercover Call 6 Investigators photographer who rolled down the window at his street corner.
Unaware that he was being recorded, the man told his potential street corner donor that he had been homeless for "about two years." When asked where he typically slept, the man pointed and answered, "On the railroad tracks, I got a tent. I sleep there."
Cameras continued to roll from a distance, and the man was seen hopping on his bicycle every night around 5 o’clock, and then peddling with no difficulty to a home on East 46th Street, where he was seen unlocking the door and taking off his coat.
Each night, he was seen peddling to the same house, which is about a mile away from the intersection where he collected donations with his "homeless" sign.
A woman identifying herself as his mother answered the door when he was not home. She identified him as a 33-year-old unemployed welder, who has always had a warm place to sleep and plenty of food at the family home.
She declined to provide the man's name, but said he was paying child support for three children and was also facing legal troubles in criminal court. She said he was likely telling "half-truths" on the street corner because he was only receiving $53 each week in unemployment benefits.
When confronted about his lack of a limp and the warm roof over his head, the man covered his face with his "homeless" sign and declined to answer questions.
"From my perspective, from personal experience in dealing with that, a vast majority of these folks are not homeless, they are simply taking advantage of people's kindness,” said Lt. Chris Bailey with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.
While working an undercover case, he said a panhandler who was claiming to be homeless climbed into a $50,000 truck to drive away.
"They're there, apparently, to take advantage of people's generosity," Bailey said.
Police ticketing worst offenders
A local ordinance makes it a crime to panhandle within 50 feet of an intersection or in a street.
IMPD records show 97 panhandling arrests or citations issued between Aug. 21, 2013 and Feb. 21, 2014, mostly in downtown or other shopping areas.
The police records show 38 arrests or citations in the downtown business district, while 26 people were charged with panhandling at the Keystone Avenue and East 86th Street intersection during that six-month period.
Police said panhandlers are required to hand over their identification and provide their legitimate address when they are being arrested or ticketed, and people who are truly homeless are listed as such on the citation.
The Call 6 Investigators found numerous tickets issued to people who were collecting money by claiming to be homeless, only to provide stable home addresses to police as they were being ticketed.
"It doesn't surprise me that there are people out there that are taking advantage of people's kindness," said Bailey.
Police records listed one 44-year-old man getting at least six citations for panhandling, holding a sign that read, "Homeless anything helps, greatly appreciated" in August and September.
On each citation, police said he listed his address at a home on Wyandotte Trail, in a neighborhood just more than a mile away. The Call 6 Investigators found investigative computer databases listing the man receiving mail at that same home address.
No one answered the door when the Call 6 Investigators tried to locate the panhandler at that home.
A review of other panhandling citations found several others listing home addresses throughout the city, including some who were listed as receiving regular mail at those addresses in various investigative computer databases.
Bailey said, "We believe this is a public safety issue from multiple standpoints. The folks that put themselves at the end of the exit ramps or who enter traffic obviously put themselves and other motorists in danger when they enter the intersections.
"There have been homeless organizations throughout the city that have conducted surveys and studies … that a majority of those who claim to be homeless, that are asking for money on the streets, are in
fact not homeless," said Bailey.
Arrest data from IMPD showed officers hauling some of the panhandlers to jail, mostly in the downtown business district when they have created disturbances or appeared to be intoxicated.
In one instance, police found an ex-con panhandling at an east side freeway ramp. He was taken to jail for failing to register as a violent offender as required as part of his parole.
In another case from October on South Keystone Avenue at Interstate 65, police arrested a 29-year-old panhandler with a "homeless" sign who told police he was collecting money to satisfy his heroin and prescription drug habit.
Outlook from homeless advocates
The head of Indy's Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention (CHIP) said drug habits are not uncommon for panhandlers who may or may not be homeless.
"What this does is it really focuses on short-term fixes versus long-term solutions," said CHIP Executive Director Christy Shepard.
She questioned how people who donate to roadside panhandlers would feel if they found out their donations led to a fatal drug overdose.
"Panhandling is often the first topic equated with homeless, and they're not always that and the same," said Shepard. "It absolutely affects the perception of what homelessness or housing instability looks like in Indianapolis."
She urged people who want to help to volunteer or donate to legitimate organizations aimed at addressing homeless issues.
"Buyer beware -- do you really know that these individuals have the barriers or the needs that they're expressing? You don’t know, but what you do know is that there are several agencies and several programs out there that focus on meeting the needs and really improving the lives of individuals," she said.
One panhandler who carries a sign that professes, "Truly Homeless" at Pendleton Pike and I-465 said he needs every dollar to eat and survive, but he said he is outnumbered by people who pretend to be homeless so that they can cash in on people's generosity.
"There's too many scam artists out here," said Joseph Davis, who said he's been homeless for 10 years since moving from Atlanta.
When he saw the Call 6 Investigators hidden camera video of the man who seemed to turn off a pronounced limp when he arrived to his warm family home, Davis reacted, "Fake, fraud, phony … look, no limp at all," he said while pointing to the video.
He said he competes with "100 percent fakers" who are collecting money in the same intersection where he is trying to survive. He said one bragged to him about collecting $200 per day, another routinely stays in a nearby hotel, and yet another panhandles when he's not at work at his regular job.
"That really upsets me," he said while pointing again to the man with the limp on East 56th Street at I-465.
While the limping man answered no questions from the Call 6 Investigators, his mother said she has no recollection of him ever being injured by a bus as a child.
She also said he was "probably telling you half-truths and half-lies," as he had mentioned to her about previously sleeping near some railroad tracks at another stage of his life.
She said she never allows him to go hungry now and he has always had a comfortable place to sleep since her family moved into the home three years ago.