The intersection of Independence Avenue and The Paseo is not just an intersection, but a mixmaster of roadways and ramps where panhandlers such as Mickey rotate from one corner to the next, respecting one another’s work shifts.
Motorists say hi through taps of their horns. Those who don’t offer cash through a driver’s side window might hand off a brown bag with bottled water and a sandwich.
“Been doing this for five years,” said Mickey, 41. “They know me.”
All around the metro are Mickeys, known to passing motorists by face though hardly ever by name, as the panhandlers in this piece requested. They’re at the center of a growing conversation as Kansas City officials consider an ordinance that could hand penalties to panhandlers.
Where Mickey works on The Paseo, vehicles coming off an Interstate 35 exit ramp turn left, right and caddy-corner. The confluence of high traffic and turning lanes presents the type of hazard that city council is stressing in its proposal that says pedestrians can be on a median, traffic island or a non-sidewalk area near a highway ramp only as long as it takes to cross safely.
“The problem is getting worse and worse,” said Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who represents Northland’s 2nd District at-large, on Thursday, when she introduced the ordinance. “It’s north and south and east and west.”
The bill was written without mentioning panhandling because such laws have been thrown out by courts across the country, on grounds that they violate First Amendment rights to free expression.
“It’s free speech,” says Mickey.
Her cardboard sign asks motorists to “help if you can” but that she will love them anyway.
The love may not be mutual, according to local online users weighing in this week on roadside beggars.
“It used to just happen near off ramps and the like,” wrote one contributor to a Reddit thread that has more than 140 comments. “Now it happens on Linwood and Gillham. Near Armour and Gillham. It happens north of the river and all the way down by 95th street. The problem has exploded over the past 10 years, and people here are generous by nature.
“I’m not totally opposed to panhandling, but I’ve spent enough time with these people to know that many are not homeless.”
Mickey says she lives in a tent: “I only do this because I like to eat.”
Casey, working the opposite corner, says he lives in a tent, too. And “John Doe,” holding a sign where northbound I-35 exits onto West Pennway, says the $50 he can raise on a good day pays for a night at motel off U.S. 40.
But Sean Ackerson of the neighborhood and business group Southtown Council said the police officers and community activists with whom his organization confers report “the majority of the people we’re dealing with are not homeless. They’re opportunists.”
Another Reddit user said the council’s proposed bill “is just targeting a symptom. Focusing on restricting the homeless’s ability to solicit donations is a backwards ass way to address the problem. It would make way more sense to ensure they have access to basic services in the first place so they don’t need to beg.”
A community survey he posted late Tuesday on the Southtown Facebook page drew more than 80 responses in two days. He said results of the survey will be compiled early next week and shared with police and Kansas City Council members.
“I’m hearing two things: One is that people around here have a real compassion for the homeless,” Ackerson said. “But one of the concerns coming up regularly is with those panhandlers who get aggressive or intoxicated. They may not say anything threatening but they work their way to someone’s private space.”
John Doe takes umbrage. In 95-degree heat, he sat Friday on a West Pennway curb, within a few feet of cars stopped at a signal. He uttered nothing except thanks for drivers who rolled down their windows. “God bless,” his sign read.
A while back one of those drivers asked where John Doe lived. The panhandler mentioned the motel room and the motorist drove him there and paid for a week’s stay.
Well-traveled residents will see the man at West Pennway at other street corners, too, being careful not to be seen for too long at the same spot.
“People don’t want to see the same face of someone they may not think is doing enough to help himself,” said the panhandler, noting that a criminal history in drug dealing has kept him from landing work. “Oh yeah, I can hear them shredding my application even before I’m out the door.
“But mostly, people in these cars are generous ... when they’re not turning their heads away.”