When I climbed in the Panhandler Jobs Van for one of its twice-weekly runs, two men and a woman were already in the back seat, eager to earn $45 and an $8 fast-food lunch for five hours of picking up trash along the roadside.
As we rolled down Main Street toward the day’s job site along South Broadway and Harrodsburg Road, driver Jarrod Jones stopped twice when he saw panhandlers. Four more men and two women squeezed into the van.
At the corner of South Broadway and West Maxwell Street, several men folded their signs when they saw the van coming. Jones slowed, but didn’t stop.
“We don’t have any room left,” he yelled. “Sorry.”
When Mayor Jim Gray announced the Jobs Van program in April, I was skeptical. I doubted many of the dozens of men and women who started begging on street corners after the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down Lexington’s panhandling ordinance in February would stop “flying signs” if offered work.
I wasn’t the only one.
“I didn’t think this would work,” said Steve Polston, a retired corporate turnaround specialist with a Harvard MBA who organized the Jobs Van program in his volunteer role as board chair of the non-profit New Life Day Center.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect hardly anybody to work,” said Jones, a former Lexington Police officer Polston hired last spring to drive the van and manage the work crews with help from former boxer Charles Jones.
“It’s proved me wrong,” he added. “I've had maybe four or five people turn me down. From the beginning, we’ve had so many people that want to do it, but we don’t have the room and have to turn them away.”
Gray got the idea for the Jobs Van from Mayor Richard Berry of Albuquerque, N.M., who launched a similar program two years ago. So far, Gray is impressed with the results in Lexington.
“There’s a perception that people who are panhandling want to do it,” said Gray, who also spent a morning with a work crew. “All you have to do is talk to people on the van. They don’t want to (panhandle). But they have challenges.”
The Jobs Van was part of an aggressive response by Gray and the Urban County Council to the proliferation of panhandlers last spring. The city donated a van to New Life Day Center — it’s painted with “End Panhandling Now” in huge letters on each side — and allocated $50,000 from its homeless services budget to fund the program for a year.
The Council passed a new ordinance to keep panhandlers out of traffic at intersections. The city also partnered with United Way of the Bluegrass on a public awareness campaign, LexGive. It urges people to donate money to the Jobs Van program instead of directly to panhandlers. As of Wednesday, the public had donated $4,870 online at Lexgive.com.
Those efforts have reduced panhandling. Polston says his head counts show a decline from 75-100 panhandlers in April to about a dozen this month. The Jobs Van workers have filled more than 1,000 bags of trash from roadways and public parks.
The men and women I met on the Jobs Van said it has been a godsend.
Errol Gill, 52, came to Lexington from Detroit four years ago. He said he has worked as a handyman and dishwasher. He sleeps where he can. The night before we talked, he said he slept in Cheapside Park.
“What we’re doing now is a blessing; it really is,” Gill said. “I don’t want to be out here no more on the streets. I’m too old for this.”
Steven “Hillbilly” Dykes, 54, feels the same way. He has lived on and off Lexington’s streets since the 1980s. “People want to work,” he said. “I think they ought to run this van more than two days a week.”
Dykes has battled alcoholism and served time for manslaughter in the 2008 death of another homeless man.
“I was one of the officers that arrested Hillbilly,” Jarrod Jones said. “And now he’s by far my hardest worker.”
Over the next six months, Gray and Polston plan to evaluate the Jobs Van’s future. Eventually, Polston would like to see it run more than two days a week, funded half by the city and half by donations. But he knows the real solution is getting panhandlers off the street and into sustainable jobs that will allow them to support themselves.
Unfortunately, many aren’t capable of that, Polston said. Panhandlers typically suffer from addictions, disabilities or both. Many lack functional education and have been abandoned by family.
Polston said he thinks about 15 of the panhandlers the Jobs Van has worked with over the past five months are capable of eventually becoming self-sufficient.
New Life Day Center, which is supported by seven area churches, connects homeless people with social services. Its accomplishments include a rental deposit assistance program that has helped get 193 men, women and children off the streets and into housing since May 2016.
“There’s a core of homeless who don’t want to be there,” Polston said. “If you can find a path for them and really work with them you can bring them out of it.”