Begging comes to town

Published 10:56 am Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Panhandler working shopping centers

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Panhandlers are a common sight in urban areas like Newport News, while more rural areas, such as Smithfield and Isle of Wight, historically were fairly immune.

Not anymore.

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A man standing with a sign describing a sick wife has been seen regularly in Smithfield and at Eagle Harbor and has caught the eye of town officials, as well as Anthony Robinette, who runs the local homeless shelter, Mission of Hope, and Garage ministry.

Robinette said he’s offered to help the man numerous times and has given the man, who he says goes by “Nick,” his phone number four times.

Each time Robinette has followed up, the man said he lost the number and has given varying stories as to why he has been unable to access the services available. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Robinette is concerned the man is disingenuously preying on people’s sympathies as a way to earn money.

If the man really needed help, he would take advantage of services offered and not stand on a street corner, Robinette said.

Robinette has some experience with the more troubled side of life. Before beginning his Garage ministry, he was a drug pusher, homeless and in prison before being turned around by God. His ministry reaches out to those with similar backgrounds.

Efforts to reach the man, with a phone number provided by Robinette, were unsuccessful.

When members of the Smithfield Town Council questioned Police Chief Alonzo Howell about the man, they were told that what he was doing is considered free speech.

In 2015, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled on a case from Henrico County that panhandling is a form of free speech.

Howell said the man appears to know the law, for when approached he points out the free speech caveat, as well as that he’s standing on private property.

There are other options, such as charging the man with disorderly conduct or other offenses, but he is not committing those acts, Howell said, adding that there’s nothing in Smithfield’s ordinances that cover the man’s activities.

Howell said the man doesn’t ask people for money or become aggressive, but simply stands there with the sign, which is permitted.

However, if the owners of the private property, such as the shopping center, wanted him to leave, they could pursue that option.

Howell said he’s seen people give the man food, but not money.

Robinette knows about the free speech ruling and said he ought to exercise his own right to stand next to the man with a sign telling motorists that this might not be for real.

The reason he thinks it’s not real is that the man has repeatedly declined genuine offers for help.

And there’s another reason. When researching the issue of panhandling online, Robinette came across a photo of a man in another local newspaper with a similar message on the sign and the same body type. For some reason, half of the man’s face was cut off.

The photo was taken 18 months ago.

His wife has been very sick for quite some time, Robinette said.

When shown the photo, Howell said the body type appeared similar to the man in Smithfield.

Robinette said he’s confronted the man about the truth of his claims, to no avail. 

But he’s mostly concerned that the more people give to the man, the longer he will stay, or will attract more beggars who may also be disingenuous.

And when people realize what’s going on, “that’s what gives people a bad taste,” making them reluctant to give to the genuinely needy, Robinette said.  {/mprestriction}