Surge in issue sparks complaints to police
ROCKFORD — On a sunny Saturday morning, Kelsey Rogers holds a cardboard sign as he stands on a sidewalk near the intersection of East State Street and Alpine Road.
The handwritten sign states Rogers is homeless due to bereavement, identity theft and other hardship. Any donation will help.
“I’ll work on cars or clean people’s houses, whatever I can do,” he said. “But, when I don’t have a job for that day, I come out here.”
The sight of people asking for money at busy intersections has become more commonplace in Rockford and in other cities in Illinois since January when a federal judge struck down the state’s panhandling prohibition from being enforced on the basis the statute violates the First Amendment.
The increase in the number of people soliciting donations at busy intersections has generated complaint calls to police and prompted the Rockford Rescue Mission to offer advice on how residents should respond.
For Rogers, working the busy Rockford intersection can help him scrape up enough cash to get a place to stay for the night, he says.
The 40-year-old is originally from Tupelo, Mississippi, but has lived in Rockford for about 30 years. Sometimes he stays with friends or, if he has the money, he rents a motel room.
Dressed in a high visibility green sweatshirt and tan pants, Rogers keeps his belongings tucked in a bright red backpack while he scans the intersection for donors.
A woman in the front passenger seat of a westbound sedan rolls down her window and hands Rogers a five dollar bill.
Moments later, a man in another car gives him a dollar.
The morning is off to a promising start.
“There’s some generous people here,” Rogers said. “It varies. I’m not out here all day. I get what I need and then I go on about my business.”
City police have received a flurry of complaints about people soliciting donations at intersections, but they can’t intervene unless the person has broken any laws or created a public safety issue, said Rockford Deputy Police Chief Kurt Whisenand.
“Our hands are tied. There’s not a law for us to enforce,” he said. “If there’s a person on foot in an intersection that creates a public safety threat or is blocking traffic, then we can intervene based on other laws.”
Whisenand said he can’t quantify the number of complaints the department has received, “but I do know in the past few months since the law was struck down in federal court, we have received a number of calls from citizens complaining about people at intersections asking for money.”
Assistant City Attorney Matthew Flores said the city’s overriding concern is public safety and ensuring people can utilize sidewalks, medians and roadways in a safe manner.
“Panhandling is a word that has a lot of negative connotations to it,” Flores said. “The reality is it is entirely lawful to stand in a public place and engage in speech. What you’re doing with that speech, whether it’s soliciting funds or whether it’s just holding a sign that says ‘I’m happy to be here’ or whether you’re just walking back and forth across the street, if you have a lawful right to be there, certainly you can be there for purposes of making a solicitation.”
William Clark said he is a painter by trade but hasn’t had steady work in over a year.
Clark, 37, said he typically stands at the corner of East State and Ninth streets for three to four hours a day asking passing motorists for help.
“They help out as long as you’re not bothering them or causing any problems,” Clark said. “I only try for 20 bucks. That’s all I try for. I don’t stand here and try to make fifty or sixty bucks like some others.”
Clark, who is originally from Indiana, said he is living in a tent by some railroad tracks on the city’s southeast side. His efforts to find full-time work have been hindered by his lack of identification.
“My bag got stolen a little over a year ago, and I don’t have an ID,” he said. “I went to 612 North Church Street (Rockford Human Services Department) to get an ID and they said I never had an Illinois ID, so I have to get a Social Security card.”
Should you give cash to panhandlers?
The increase in the number of people soliciting funds at local intersections prompted the Rockford Rescue Mission to put out a call for action.
The mission is distributing business-sized cards for motorists to give to people seeking help. The cards provide information about the services the mission offers including shelter, meals, vocational training and spiritual guidance.
“We’re hoping that as these cards begin to circulate in the city, we’ll see more people coming to the mission,” said Abby Finley, the Rescue Mission’s director of marketing and communications.
The Rescue Mission urges people never to give cash to a homeless person, Finley said. Instead, the mission encourages people to give bottled water, snacks or gift certificates to restaurants along with the mission’s help card when they encounter individuals seeking money.
Help cards can be picked up at the Rescue Mission, 715 W. State St., weekdays between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. or by downloading a PDF page from the mission’s website.
Convincing those in need of assistance to seek help is another matter.
Rogers, the man soliciting money at State and Alpine, said he is reluctant to take advantage of the Rescue Mission’s services.
“I don’t want to go to a shelter because I’m scared of catching the coronavirus,” he said.
Back on the corner of East State and Ninth streets, Clark is primarily concerned about getting some clean clothes after standing out in the rain for a couple of days.
He cautions passersby who may be quick to judge him and his predicament.
“There could be a lot more to my story than what they know,” Clark said. “They just see me standing here holding a piece of cardboard.”
Ken DeCoster: email@example.com; @DeCosterKen