Robert “Shorty” Eads used to spend a lot of time on the corner of High and Broadway streets “flying a sign” that asked motorists stopped at the busy Lexington intersection for money.
Not any more.
On Thursday morning, Eads donned an orange plastic vest, grabbed a trash bag and a long-handled device used to pick up litter and walked along Bryan Station Road where a crew of other current and former panhandlers were picking up trash for $9 an hour.
“I was one of the first people on the van,” Eads said Thursday as he stood behind Lexington’s blue and white “End Panhandling Now” jobs van.
In May, Lexington launched a program that picks up panhandlers off Lexington streets and gives them work for a day — part of a broader push to stop people from begging on city streets after a surge in panhandling in the spring.
Since it launched, 156 people have participated in the program. Of those, 93 people, or roughly 60 percent, have been on the van three or more times. Four people in the program are now housed and five, including Eads, have been enrolled in an employment program that will hopefully lead to a permanent job, said Polly Ruddick, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Prevention and Intervention.
The participants have collected 5,830 bags of trash and 92 tires on an estimated 325 miles of roadway.
“It’s full every single day they run,” Ruddick told the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council during a meeting in January. “But it still only runs twice a week.”
Drive-by counts show a steep drop in the number of panhandlers on Lexington’s streets since the van began running regularly, but complaints about panhandling have not dropped off.
The uptick in panhandling in the spring of 2017 came after the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down Lexington’s ordinance banning street begging, saying it violated the First Amendment right to free speech. The city later passed a new ordinance that took effect in July that prohibits pedestrians, including panhandlers, from approaching cars in traffic, among other things.
From July to late January, the city received 942 complaints about panhandling. During that same time period, police wrote 89 citations for violations of the new pedestrian and traffic safety ordinance, according to data the Herald-Leader received through an Open Records Act request. In 2015, there were 833 complaints about panhandling.
After a drop off in the fall, some members of the city council have said they’re seeing an uptick in complaints about panhandling. During a Tuesday meeting, the council voted to have a committee review how the new ordinance is being enforced.
Steve Polston, the director of New Life Day Center, a nonprofit that runs the van program, said the program counted somewhere between 125 and 150 panhandlers a day on Lexington streets in May 2017. By fall, that number dropped to about a dozen. Currently, drive-by counts show about 20 panhandlers on Lexington streets.
“We don’t yet have a year’s worth of data,” Ruddick said. “There was an increase around Christmas time, particularly in the Nicholasville and Hamburg area, but we saw the numbers drop off after that period.”
Most people holding signs by the side of the road aren’t homeless, Ruddick said.
Jarrod Jones, a retired Lexington police officer who supervises the panhandling van, said he was at first skeptical that panhandlers would want to work. He told Polston when he was hired that he thought only a few would want to get on the van.
He was wrong.
Jones said more people want to get on the van than it can hold.
The only panhandlers who have turned him down have said they can’t work because of a disability or are suspicious of the program, he said.
On Thursday morning, Jones picked up panhandlers at about 10 locations. In addition, New Life brings people who are participating in its employment program, such as Eads, to the day’s work site in a separate vehicle. (Eads hourly wage of $9 a day comes from private fundraising).
“We could fill at least two vans,” Polston said.
But there’s only enough funding to drive one van on two days each week.
The program, which was modeled after a similar effort in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was started with $50,000 in city money. Officials had hoped a public education campaign that directed people to donate to LexGive.com instead of panhandlers would eventually pay for the program. So far, more than $9,700 has been donated. That money goes to the van program, Ruddick said.
Officials in Albuquerque warned the city that it would take at least two years and a lot of public education for donations to ramp up, Ruddick said.
The education campaign, though, has worked in a different way — panhandlers say fewer people are giving them money, Polston said.
“By not giving through your window, their wages have dropped,” he said.
Ruddick said Albuquerque’s program also allows private businesses to hire people from the van for clean up and landscaping jobs.
“That’s also what has helped make that program sustainable,” Ruddick said.
Some of those Albuquerque companies have hired former panhandlers into full-time jobs.
Polston said Lexington’s program would love to partner with private businesses who need temporary workers and are willing to pay the $9 an hour wage.
“We will pick them up and drop them off,” Polston said. “These are very good workers. They work very hard.”
The program’s first $50,000 was exhausted quickly, prompting the Lexington council to approve another $50,000 in late January.
That money comes from a grant the city receives for litter pick up.
Stephanie “SweetP” Watson, who was among several people the van delivered to Bryan Station Road Thursday morning, said she would much rather pick up trash than panhandle.
“You can sit there for hours and only make a quarter,” Watson said of panhandling. “This is guaranteed.”
She’s tried to find a full-time job, but said having her photo on a local Facebook page that pokes fun at panhandlers has made it more difficult to find work.
“It’s hard for me to get a job because I’m on that page,” Watson said.
Recently, she said a picture was posted that ridiculed her for panhandling in front of a local fast-food restaurant that was displaying a “help wanted” sign.
“I did apply,” Watson said.
She didn’t get the job.