After discouraging help for panhandlers, Ozarks sheriff gives free turkeys to drivers

Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott handed out free turkeys days after criticizing donations to panhandlers and implying they dupe people out of cash for alcohol.
Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott handed out free turkeys days after criticizing donations to panhandlers and implying they dupe people out of cash for alcohol.

A Missouri sheriff who earlier this month discouraged residents from donating to panhandlers handed out free turkeys to drivers this week.

Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott had sparked fierce debate when he wrote panhandlers use gifted cash to “go buy beer to enjoy back at their house.” On Tuesday, Arnott seemed to take a different approach. He and eight deputies stopped drivers for various violations, but instead of giving them a ticket, they gave each of them a free turkey.

“Operation Free Bird,” as the sheriff called it, resulted in about 40 people receiving turkeys, the Springfield News-Leader reported.

“The idea we came up with — to try to show the community a little bit that we care, we want to give back,” Arnott said in a video posted by the News-Leader. “It’s Thanksgiving.”

One recipient, Dorothy Malone, said she hadn’t yet purchased a turkey and that she was overwhelmed by the gesture from the sheriff’s office.

“You’re kidding! Oh, bless your heart,” she told Arnott in the video.

But just 10 days ago, a Facebook post on Arnott’s personal page elicited scathing accusations that the sheriff lacked compassion. Along with a photo of someone’s belongings left on a street median — a coat, a box of graham crackers and gloves — Arnott implied that panhandlers are duping the generous and only care about cash to buy alcohol.

Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott

“No compassion, no heart and right down awful,” wrote Tj Carter in a comment on Arnott’s post. “He shouldn’t be degrading his own community.”

Others, though, agreed with Arnott, saying panhandlers should seek employment and calling for a “panhandler tax.”

Then last week, a few days after Arnott’s post, the News-Leader identified the owner of the belongings.

Dennis Heiskill is a homeless man who thinks he was either in the bathroom or buying a pack of cigarettes when Arnott drove by his belongings and photographed them, the News-Leader reported.

Heiskill said he’s diabetic and, when he doesn’t raise enough money from passersby for a motel room, he and his brother sleep outside in sleeping bags.

In the narrow median where he holds a sign up toward passing cars, such as one that reads, “HOMELESS HUNGRY GOD BLESS,” Heiskill said he’s had urine, pepper spray and insults hurled at him from passing vehicles.

A homeless advocate, Nancy Crawford, saw Arnott’s Facebook post and recognized Heiskill’s belongings. She’s worked with him for several months and said he cares for others more than he does himself.

“It hurt to see a public official using his platform to dehumanize somebody that he is sworn to protect and serve,” Crawford told the News-Leader. “To see my friend’s life trivialized to this little pile of crap that was the full extent of his earthly possessions — it hurt.”

Arnott told the News-Leader that he was disturbed to learn Heiskill was seeking money to afford a motel room.

“He is back out there trying to get money for a hotel room when there are so many shelters in Springfield that would offer him a place to stay,” Arnott said.

But the News-Leader reported the two Springfield shelters for single men were full this week.

Otis Emmert wrote on Facebook that Arnott’s original Facebook post, which generated more than 4,000 shares, was “a great disservice to a vulnerable population in Greene County. Sheriff, when is the last time you missed a meal?”

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg