By Jefferson Weaver
What was once considered mainly a problem for large cities has made itself at home in Columbus County.
In nearly every municipality in the county, aggressive panhandlers are hitting up shoppers, motorists and even business owners for money.
Major Alan May of the Whiteville Police Department said the city is working on a new ordinance to address the problem. Panhandling isn’t illegal under state law, although threatening would-be donors and trespassing is a criminal offense.
“It used to be you could give somebody a ride to the edge of town and tell them not to come back,” May said. “It’s more complex now.
“There are people out there with legitimate needs – usually the homeless – but there are better ways to seek help.”
He noted that shortly after coming to work in Whiteville, he noticed a man holding a sign and standing near U.S. 74-76 at the city limits.
“It’s irritating,” May said, “but right now there is very little that can be done unless someone is impeding traffic.”
The proposed new ordinance will give law enforcement officers in Whiteville the authority to issue a citation to panhandlers. Arresting them and placing them in jail is not a good option, May said.
“A lot of panhandlers are homeless,” he said. “Even in a place like Whiteville. We have homeless people near Walmart and elsewhere, and they patrol the parking lots, asking for money. If an officer arrests a homeless person, that officer has to secure the suspect’s property, or the city can be sued. It’s amazing how much stuff some of them have – it seems like every homeless person has a dog, so you have to make arrangements for their pets as well.”
May said he sees some of the same behaviors here that he saw when he started his career in New York, and from his tenure in Florida.
“The more panhandlers there are, the more aggressive they tend to be,” he said. “It makes some people feel threatened, even if they really aren’t in danger.”
Drugs, alcoholism, homelessness and other social problems are often factors in panhandling, May said, but more and more panhandlers are “professionals.”
“You see some of them with different signs and different stories, and at the end of the day, they drive away in a nice vehicle,” May said. “They all have good stories, designed to tug at your heartstrings. They know what they are doing.”
May recounted how communication between police officers helped bust a panhandling scam artist when he was a young officer in New York.
“Guy comes in to the precinct house, wearing a bus driver’s uniform,” May said. “We’re all city employees, looking out for each other. He needs gas money or something like that, so everybody pitched in to help.
“A few weeks later, he turns up at another precinct house, still wearing the bus driver’s uniform. A sergeant recognized his story. Turned out he wasn’t a bus driver at all, but he had a good thing going.”
Most panhandlers don’t go to quite such extremes, May said, being content to hit up shoppers they think will have a soft heart for a sad story.
“Even our police chief got hit up the other week,” May said. “He was in the grocery store, and two guys came up making their spiel. He offered to buy them some food, but when they refused, he told them to get lost.”
If a panhandler isn’t causing problems in a store, May said, it can be hard to make them leave.
“If they’re neat, and not threatening anyone, they can wander the aisles of a store for hours if they’re smart,” he said. “A business can prohibit people from coming on their property, but if the property owner lives out of town, that can be a hassle for them as well.”
Tabor City and Chadbourn police regularly deal with aggressive panhandlers at shopping centers, according to police reports. Individuals who ignore warnings to stay off of commercial property can be “trespassed” by the property owner, but the panhandlers usually just move to the public sidewalk adjacent to a hot spot for begging.
Some of the regular panhandlers in Whiteville have a route they follow – one known as “the Milk Man” turns up in the Columbus Corners shopping center as well as downtown. The Milk Man reportedly tells his marks that he needs money to buy a specific kind of infant formula for his sick child, but when someone offers to buy the formula, rather than provide cash, he can become aggressive.
Kristie Pate Lowder reported dealing with a panhandler thought to be the Milk Man at a retail center recently.
“We had one in Whiteville ask my husband for money for baby milk,” Lowder wrote in a response on social media. “My husband asked what kind, offered to go to Walmart and buy any kind needed. He was told ‘no, I have to pay for it with cash”. We told him, ‘just tell me what brand.’ Then the man says F*** you, man!”
An individual resembling Lowder’s panhandler also entered several businesses downtown last week, including an apartment building, making the same pitch.
Whether the Milk Man is the same panhandler, or has some competition, the baby formula story is a popular one with beggars.
“We were approached at The Minuteman by a young man looking for money for milk for his baby who according to him had been without milk for three days,” Amy Allgood White said. “My husband told him no and to move on. He refused. He stood there and argued with my husband. My husband remembered him from all the times he had booked him at the jail.
“I am not comfortable when strangers walk up to my car, but because my husband was with me I asked him what had he done in the last two or three days his baby didn’t have milk.
“I asked him had he raked any yards, picked up cans from beside the road, or made it as far as the WIC office. Had he put his cigarettes down long enough to buy the baby milk. I asked if he had proof that said baby existed. What were his plans for future provisions for said child.
“I offered to go buy a can of formula for the said child but all he wanted was money as was evidenced by his comment to take my “nosey a**” questions and shove them. It is not safe to roll windows down and unless I get a very strong peace from God then my windows stay up and my hard earned money stays in my pocket.”
Brandy Rogers also said she doesn’t mind helping people, but she also uses caution.
“I have been bombarded with panhandlers extremely bad in Chadbourn,” she said. “However, I have run into quite a few in Whiteville claiming to be war veterans and wearing war veteran’s hats. I have even went to the extent of calling in Vietnam Veterans who have tried to go out and help these guys and when they contacted the VA regarding these individuals they are not veterans.”
Several respondents to a query on social media suggested offering food or bottled water rather than cash. Others keep their vehicles stocked with Ziplock bags of small personal items, including hygiene products, socks and a small New Testament, to hand out to those in need.
“I have always been willing to help those who actually need assistance,” said Linda Carteret Stevens, “but it›s getting harder to distinguish the truly needy from scammers who just want a quick dollar. When a panhandler is better dressed than I am, I have serious doubts about their need of my money. Last week, I witnessed such a man in Wilmington who was wearing Carhartt pants…they are not cheap.”
“California has jaded me against handouts on the street,” said Roz Gwinner Skochinsky. Now a resident of Whiteville, Skochinsky is a member of several veterans organizations that regularly reach out to homeless veterans in the community.
Although she said she will help someone truly in need, some panhandlers, she said, are truly scammers.
“They would stand there with signs saying they would work for food,” she said. “The last one I was going to give money to, I offered a day of work for much more than I would have just given him. He told me to get lost because he made more money standing on that corner than he ever would by working.”
Rachel Todd said she doesn’t question whether a panhandler is being honest.
“(The Apostle) Paul seeks to encourage the Corinthians to do likewise, explaining: ‘The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’
“Giving, no matter if they sincerely need it or not does not take away your blessing if you have in the right heart been led by the spirit. The father sees your motives and your heart and hopefully is pleased by your actions. Feeling embittered because you think they didn’t spend that money wisely is not what God charges us to feel. I give what I can when I can. If I have a $5 bill, then it’s not my money anyway, It’s God’s money, to be used to glorify him. Give, and then forget and give again.
“I do know that my in-laws’ restaurant has an awful time with beggars. It has gotten better, but at one time there were quite a few people hanging around.”
Carla Wilson said, “I share because I don’t know their story. If they are frauds they can deal with my Lord. I once took my ex-boyfriend’s leather jacket he gave me and an old quilt one winter and gave them to a guy begging.”
“I don’t like it,” said Alan Gerald owner of Dale’s Seafood in Whiteville. “Especially when they beg from my customers. Something needs to be done to help business owners.”
Jimmy Hinson echoed the sentiments of several respondents when he questioned how some panhandlers have high-end cellular phones and clothing, but can’t afford food. “I will never refuse to feed any human being, as long as I have food,” he said, “but most of the people I encounter, they want money. I have bought food and given it to several, they would say I can’t eat this, just give me some money.”
May said that a combination of efforts by social organizations, churches, and local government can make a difference in cutting down on panhandling by reducing the number of truly homeless and needy people in a community. Those efforts, however, can lead to additional problems as well.
“Let’s say you have a church that sets up a homeless shelter,” he said. “It’s a safe place, clean and well managed, and helps people get back on their feet, or at least off the street. If you aren’t careful, you start having people loitering around the property all the time, since some of them have nowhere to go anyway. Then their behavior starts affecting the neighboring properties. It’s not an easy problem to solve.
“We’ve got to have someone willing to advocate for the homeless, and some way to help them, if we don’t want them asking for money in the parking lot of our favorite stores,” he said.
“Some people truly, truly need help,” he said, “but this isn’t the way to go about it. It’s something that has to be addressed by the community as well as law enforcement and government. There are a lot of things at play, and there’s no easy solution.