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Updated: Wednesday, 02 Nov 2011, 11:00 PM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 02 Nov 2011, 11:00 PM EDT
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - The city's hottest spot for panhandling is not at all where you'd expect. It's not on Monroe Mall, and it's not along South Division Avenue -- though there's plenty of action in both places.
It's on the city's northwest side -- at Leonard Street and Scribner Avenue NW.
And the panhandlers are lining up.
"I own that corner; it's mine," convicted panhandler Jason Smith told Target 8.
"If you dominate the corner, then you make a few dollars," fellow panhandler Joseph Oaks said.
"They take turns," said Nate Herrington, manager of NAPA Auto Parts across the street from the panhandlers. "They've got a crew that works down here and basically stand on the corner, and one will take a break and move over to the other corner, and another one comes over here. It's like a full-schedule rotation."
Of the 399 arrests and citations for so-called "disorderly begging" in Grand Rapids over 3.5 years, 52 were at Leonard and Scribner -- the most for any single location, according to a Target 8 analysis of police records obtained by the ACLU.
The ACLU cited those reports in a federal lawsuit filed against the state and Grand Rapids over a law that bans panhandling. That case is pending.
"Disorderly begging. It's like wow, is there an orderly way to beg?" Oaks asked.
The arrests at Leonard and Scribner were spread among almost two-dozen panhandlers. Jason Smith was No. 1. He's picked up often.
"Only, like, 25 times, if you call that a lot," he said.
Actually, it was 13 during that three-and-a-half-year period, which ended in May 2011. Since then, he's been arrested another 11 times for panhandling. While court records show he lives on Fuller Avenue SE, he said he's unemployed and lives under the US 131 bridge over Leonard.
So far this year, he's served 10 days in jail, has been ordered to a work crew (though he failed to show up) and has been fined hundreds of dollars, though records show he still owes the court at least $350. His record also includes prior convictions for domestic violence, burlgary, drunk driving and theft.
The panhandling arrests are a cost of doing business at such a profitable corner.
Smith, 34, said he can make $100 on a good day. "On an average day, $50," he said.
Oaks, 54, his colleague in panhandling, who recently spent two days in jail for begging, also makes his share. "I've made a hundred in one day," he said.
Leonard and Scribner isn't the city's only panhandling hot spot.
During that 3.5-year period, Grand Rapids police made 51 begging arrests up and down Monroe Center, and 54 arrests over a three-block stretch of Ionia Avenue, the Target 8 analysis shows.
"I don't think there's a day goes by that somebody doesn't come up to at least one of us and ask for something, whether it be a cigarette, money, food, anything," said Shawn Lavengood, director of Ecouter salon on Ionia.
She fears panhandlers will drive away customers, if they haven't already.
"When people come to downtown Grand Rapids, they don't want to be bothered by that," she said. "It's a safe city, it's a fun city, it's a trendy city, so I can totally see where people would be worried about it affecting the image that Grand Rapids is trying to portray."
At the Shell station at Wealthy Street and South Division Avenue, it's a daily battle -- separating panhandlers from paying customers.
"It's bad for business, man," said Eric McGraw, a Shell station clerk. "Customers don't like it; they always complain and a lot of the times they'll just make people not want to come back here because they know they're going to get hassled."
Back at Leonard and Scribner, some worry about the panhandlers and their safety.
"That's four lanes there, a very busy corner," said Herrington, the NAPA manager. "So when it's going to create a safety hazard for them and other people, I think they should definitely be moved."
On a recent day, Target 8 found four men sharing a sign. They say it's their right.
" If this said, 'Abortion kills,' you wouldn't be crying about that," Oaks said. "How come we ain't got a right to make a statement?"
Panhandlers say this corner is the perfect spot -- a drive-through for handouts. Traffic often backs up at the light, and because it's one-way, drivers are right at the curb.
"We take turns, take 20-minute turns," Smith said while sitting beneath the nearby 131 bridge, waiting his turn and obviously intoxicated.
"You catch 10 lights, let the other guy go," Oaks said.
There's no secret about how the men here spend it.
"Granted, I am an alcoholic and I do consume alcohol," Oaks said. "I do get thirsty on occasion, but I'm just trying to stay alive."
Oaks said he doesn't work. "I can't get a job because I'm an ex-con," he said. His record dates back to 1974 and includes convictions for burglary, auto theft, drunk driving and assault with a dangerous weapon.
John Hart also shares this corner, but he is no panhandler. He buys roses at Meijer for $1 each, repackages them and sells them for $3 each. He
said he's on disability, and that the money helps pay for heat and electricity.
The corner, he said, is worth fighting for. He competes with panhandlers.
"I buy 'em off," Hart said. "I might be contributing to their alcoholism, but I'm like, 'Here's a bottle, get out of my way.'Otherwise, I'll have three to four bums standing behind me."
Even so, his competition makes more money just holding a sign.
"I have some self-esteem, at least it's enough to keep my pride up," he said of his rose sales, which can reach $50 on a Friday.