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The Panhandling Predicament: ‘I Call it Surviving’

The Panhandling Predicament: ‘I Call it Surviving’

  • This article originally appeared in the January 2024 health and wellness issue of COMO Magazine.
Cardboard Sign Displaying Panhandling Predicament

Flying a sign is not a new sight in Columbia — and it’s not illegal.

One side of Tim’s handcrafted sign tells passing motorists, “You have a beautiful smile.” The other side reads, “Anything Helps. God Bless.”

Standing on the concrete median on the west side of Bernadette Drive at the intersection with Stadium Boulevard, Tim is willing for a moment, though not all that eager, to talk about his circumstances. A bit of morning drizzle left slight water spots on the “smile” side of his sign, which he is “flying” in hopes of getting money or food from generous motorists. It’s just a couple of weeks until Christmas.

Tim (not his real name) seems uncomfortable with close contact. He says his darting eyes are just a sign of the anxiety that has stalled his life. Yes, he’s homeless, he says, adding, “Lost everything.”

Tim makes quick-but-gone eye contact and his hands shake. He swipes lip balm across his chapped mouth. Darkness is just a few hours away. Where will he find shelter?

Not at Room at the Inn at the new Ashley Street Center. Not some other under-roof shelter.

“I have a tent,” he answers. “My anxiety. I just can’t do … that. It’s too much.”

Tim walks away, making sure the “Smile” message is facing a new line of vehicles. He’s been asked if he calls what he does “panhandling” or “flying a sign.”

“Neither,” he replies, turning to make about one second of eye contact. “I call it surviving.” And the moment of sharing is over.

Cat Armbrust doesn’t need a detailed description to realize she knows Tim’s real name. As the director of the nonprofit CoMo Mobile Aid Collective, Armbrust likely knows the names of most sign flyers and people experiencing homelessness in Columbia. She’s also familiar with the social media clamor that often tracks the movement and impact of panhandlers and homeless individuals.

“It’s important that we humanize this,” she says. “We have that in our mission, making sure that people understand these are humans involved.”

Is it legal or illegal?

Complaints about panhandling, a common sight at most major intersections and at several locations in downtown Columbia, seem to be proliferating about as much as the practice of asking strangers for money has been skyrocketing. But is it a new problem?

A cursory search of Columbia City Council meeting minutes chronicles a business owner’s public comment asking the city to do something about the panhandling going on downtown. That online document is dated April 1997.

Nearly twenty-seven years later, there’s still not a lot the Columbia Police Department can do about the practice, because panhandling is not against the law in Columbia. In fact, says City Manager De’Carlon Seewood, “Panhandling is a constitutionally protected activity.”

But Seewood isn’t unsympathetic to public sentiment.

“The city is aware that both residents and business owners have expressed concerns about people asking for money, or as it often referred to, panhandling,” Seewood stated in an email response to questions from COMO Magazine. “While I understand this makes some residents uncomfortable, people have a constitutional right to gather in public spaces such as sidewalks and medians. … Individuals who sit or stand and hold signs at intersections asking for money have a right to do so just as others have the right to hold signs to protest or ask for drivers to honk their horns in support of a political position.”

However, Seewood says, the act of panhandling does become illegal if it is done aggressively or if it obstructs traffic.

“That could include someone interacting in a threatening manner or touching someone without consent,” he said. “In that instance, the Columbia Police Department would respond accordingly if it were reported.”

Police and Court Involvement

The Columbia city prosecutor’s office does charge and prosecute ordinance violations related to panhandling when they reach the threshold of prohibited activity. Seewood explains that because these violations may be prosecuted under several different provisions of the municipal code, and the ordinances prohibit prosecution for multiple offenses for the same conduct, “they are generally charged under the ordinance that more closely aligns with the facts of the case — as well as what case can be easily proven in court.”

“It is important to remember that some offenses will require a complaining witness who is available and willing to testify,” he adds. “Without a willing and cooperating witness, the charge will not be filed. 

During the investigation or prosecution process, if authorities can determine that there are “underlying issues that the defendant may be experiencing that have played a part in their receiving a charge,” Seewood said the city prosecutor attempts to have those cases set on the Community Support docket on the first Monday of each month.

“Incarceration and fines have not shown to be a sufficient deterrent in these cases,” he explains. As a result, those dockets are designed to connect the individual with community resources “that may be of benefit to them and hopefully provide some structure and guidance away from the criminal justice system and reduce recidivism.

No Typical Day

Just three years ago, CoMo Mobile Aid Collective provided twice-a-week meals to about 40 people with its mobile soup kitchen. These days, the organization’s on-the-move program feeds as many as 100 or more people three times a week.

“There’s no typical day” in the life of the organization, says Armbrust. She doesn’t differentiate between someone who is experiencing homelessness or panhandling – she prefers to call that activity “flying a sign” — because not everyone who is homeless is flying a sign, and not everyone who flies a sign is homeless.

Some of them — society discards them as “others,” Armbrust says — she has known for a few years now. And she knows many of their stories; knows that some have undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses. Armbrust says “unresolved trauma” is at the center of most of their circumstances, which are never as simple as they look.

Some, like Tim, prefer the outdoor spaces, though “that doesn’t mean they choose to be homeless,” Armbrust explains. 

“It’s really complicated and layered, and not as simple as people think it is,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve care and consideration. Other things have led them to this point; everyone has had some sort of trauma in their lives. Had that other trauma not happened, things would be very different for them.”

Armbrust repeats and repeats the “not as simple as you think” mantra, giving a few examples that fit that phrase.

The person with mental illness who either doesn’t have the resources or regular access to help — and maybe they are paranoid and believe that “people are out to get them.”

When it comes to substance abuse, it’s often the result of an individual “self-medicating” because of a mental health condition or unresolved trauma.

Someone coming from a prison or jail environment might have been brutalized, both physically and mentally, and unprepared for life beyond incarceration. “They come out of the system, really, with very little support,” she says. “Then we expect them to just be better somehow.”

“We can’t just generalize everyone’s experiences,” Armbrust notes. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

Enabling Homelessness?

Armbrust helped with the strategy and execution of making CoMo Mobile Aid Collective a year-round, all-volunteer venture. She vividly remembers saying, “Cool,” when hearing the service needed more help back during the COVID pandemic when she first started visiting homeless camps with Dirk Burhans, who is recognized as the organization’s founder.

“I laugh all the time like, ‘How did this happen? How am I the director of a nonprofit?’” she says. “It’s like I blinked, and we grew.” Stephanie Yoakum is the nonprofit’s operations manager

And now it’s much more than a mobile soup kitchen with twice-a-week outreach to unsheltered individuals, while also planning menus and connecting with meal and food donors, and marketing. The organization also has a medical clinic connection. CoMo Mobile Aid Collective has nine core members “and a huge slew of regular volunteers,” Armbrust says, pausing to add, “I’ve learned how to delegate.”

She’s also learned to anticipate the questioning criticism of her work.

“It’s an argument that’s been going on for years. ‘Well, aren’t we going to enable people to be homeless or to be better at being homeless?’ No, we enable people to survive,” she says, “then we connect them with resources when they are ready.”

Columbia has a plethora of social service resources. The planned Opportunity Campus near Room at the Inn off Business Loop 70 East could be ready for operation in 12 to 18 months, at an estimated construction cost of $16 million. The campus will provide shelter and also help consolidate many of those services, in addition to providing case management, which is an aspect now mostly missing from many social service programs.

“It’s going to make a difference for people,” Armbrust says. Until then, CoMo Mobile Aid Collective will continue to provide “survival support.” She adds, “I’m going to feed you and see if you need any hygiene products.”

In the Meantime …

Seewood says the city is taking steps “to assist our residents experiencing homelessness that will mitigate the number of individuals sleeping without shelter, panhandling, and living without basic needs.” 

Some of those steps — often undertaken in partnership with local organizations — include:

Providing funding to Turning Point to offer a warming center for anyone unable or unwilling to access local shelter services.

Purchasing the former VFW building, now called the Ashley Street Center, to allow Room at the Inn to provide shelter year-round in one location.

Having conversations about how to update building codes to allow tiny homes, with amenities like a kitchen and bathroom, to create a place that people could consider home.

Creating a new Housing and Neighborhood Services department, in addition to homeowners’ assistance programs, and developing plans to incentivize developers to build housing at various price points.

Pursuing workforce development initiatives that might bring entry-level jobs to the community, new ways to connect unemployed residents with jobs, or programs that will help boost skills for those experiencing homelessness.

Seewood continued: “We are already on the right track. I look forward to continuing these conversations with the many partners and individuals willing to address this very complex issue.”

‘Criminalizing Poverty.’

Any public push for stricter control or prohibition of panhandling would be efforts to “further criminalize poverty,” Armbrust says. She suggests that proponents of such efforts join the conversation about issues such as affordable housing and access to mental health care.

The Missouri legislature last year passed a wide-ranging bill that, among other things, banned sleeping on public land, making an infraction of that law a Class C misdemeanor. But just a week before Christmas, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down that law. The state’s high court did not address the specific aim of the ban but agreed with opponents that the ban was part of a law that violated the state constitution’s requirement that all provisions in a bill adhere to a single subject.

The legislation in question was passed as an amendment to a broader bill relating to political subdivisions just before the end of the 2022 session.

Critics of the bill feared it essentially criminalized homelessness. Supporters characterized it as reducing the prevalence of encampments they deemed dangerous to unhoused people and surrounding communities.

“I understand that government officials and everyone are concerned about a finite amount of resources. Taxpayers are concerned about that. I get that,” she says. “People out flying signs — it makes visible the problems of poverty and homelessness. That makes people uncomfortable – and sometimes angry.”

Armbrust adds, “There’s no one thing that’s going to fix everything,” but with better access to mental health services and more options for affordable housing, “we would be seeing less of these issues … The old systems are not working. There needs to be new thought about how to get people the help they need.” 

One day before The Salvation Army Columbia memorialized 21 individuals during a Homelessness Memorial Day event on December 21, one of the community’s most visible sign flyers died after being struck by a car. James Lee Allen, 78, who often stood at the I-70/Highway 63 connector at the southeast outer road, sported a smile and a salt-and-pepper color beard. 

Allen was apparently struck by a vehicle at approximately 5:05 p.m. December 20 in the area of North Keene Street and Wingate Court. The Columbia Police Department reported that Allen was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. Allen was known to members of the CoMo Mobile Aid Collective, who said he was a “regular” at I-70 and Providence then moved to the Keene Street area a couple of years ago. The organization’s Facebook page said Allen “flew his sign to help pay for his hotel room.” 

On December 30, another individual, Bradley L. Ewing, 55, of Columbia, was declared dead at the scene of a vehicle-pedestrian crash in the area of East Broadway near North First Street. That accident happened at around 6:30 p.m. 

The death, first reported by Columbia police, was posted on the
CoMo Mobile Aid Collective Facebook page: 

“This is the second friend struck and killed by a car in the last couple of weeks. Terrible tragedies for all involved, to be sure/ The nomadic nature of existing while homeless — being on the streets and on the move more frequently than the average person — makes them more vulnerable to traffic accidents. As a community, we need more spaces for folks to safely exist and better access to resources (including transportation) in order to decrease the likelihood of these types of accidents.” 

The names of homeless individuals recognized at the Homelessness Memorial Day event were: 

  • Sarah “Red” Danner 
  • Terrell “Chief” Page  
  • George Nichols  
  • Paul Powell 
  • William “Shorty” Franklin 
  • Roy Kohrs  
  • Mary Jo Reynolds  
  • Brandon Lee  
  • David Sharrock  
  • Tina Johns-Duke 
  • Ann Quarles 
  • Tony Washington 
  • Anthony Bell 
  • Joseph Mercier 
  • Rosalee Gross 
  • Lisa Smith Lowe 
  • Jermaine Burnett 
  • Ron Shivers 
  • Darita Williams 
  • Ralph Anthony 
  • Ryan Wilkerson 
  • James Allen 
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