Talking to a reporter last week at the southwest corner of Beachland Boulevard and State Road A1A, a chatty and well-equipped panhandler from Indiana wiped the sweat from his brow and asked, “Is it 1 o’clock yet?”
Told that it was, he closed up his red and black umbrella, put away his cardboard “Help” sign, and prepared to depart the intersection on a bicycle loaded with his belongings.
He said he was headed down the street – to Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill.
“Haven’t had much luck today and it’s really hot outside, so I think I’ll go grab a cold beer,” said the blond-haired man, who refused to give his name. “I’ll be back for the evening rush hour.”
Later that afternoon, Vero Beach City Manager Jim O’Connor seemed perturbed when he learned of the exchange.
“I’m glad he’s enjoying his stay here,” O’Connor said sarcastically. Then, his tone becoming more stern, he added, “It takes a lot of nerve for him to say what he said.”
Despite O’Connor’s irritation at the prospect of a panhandler enjoying a beer beachside between shifts at the intersection, panhandling is not illegal in Vero Beach, which has seen a noticeable increase in the presence of roadside beggars the past few years.
City officials’ attempts to halt the practice have so far been ineffective and they say there’s little else they can do to stop it.
Vero Beach police have cracked down on nuisance crimes committed by panhandlers, and last winter the city installed signs that discourage panhandling at major intersections. But the panhandlers are still at it, especially at U.S. 1’s intersections with State Road 60, 17th Street and Aviation Boulevard.
At least one of them has now set up shop on the island.
“I don’t think there’s anything more we can do, legally, to prevent it,” O’Connor said, adding that he and Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey consulted with City Attorney Wayne Coment before concluding that an ordinance banning panhandling would be difficult to defend in court.
In fact, Vero Beach officials opted not to follow the City of Sebastian, which, in July 2016, passed an ordinance that prohibits panhandling at 12 intersections, including those at County Road 512 and U.S. 1, Barber Street and U.S. 1, and County Road 512 and Roseland Road.
The Sebastian ordinance makes it unlawful “for any person to solicit money for any cause” at the city’s “busiest and most dangerous intersections,” where “drivers need to be most alert and more aware of their surroundings.”
O’Connor said he has not proposed a similar law to the Vero Beach City Council because, after discussing Sebastian’s ordinance with Coment, “we’re not sure it’s legal.”
Currey said panhandlers are not breaking any existing law as long as “they’re on a sidewalk, not disrupting the flow of traffic and not accosting people,” and that police “need to be careful not to violate their constitutional rights.”
He said the panhandlers “aren’t supposed to go onto the roadway, but if traffic is stopped and someone in a car is waving a dollar . . . one of our officers would have to see them do it.”
Currey said he has seen some of “the regulars” still on the corners, often standing near or sitting right in front of the city’s signs, which read: “DUE TO PUBLIC SAFETY CONCERNS, PANHANDLING IS DISCOURAGED” in red letters, with “Please Donate To Local Charitable Organizations” underneath in smaller black letters.
In addition, the police department still gets calls from the public complaining about the presence of the panhandlers.
“We hope the signs have deterred some people, and we think it has helped some,” Currey said, “but we’ve been dealing with this for a while now.”
Both Currey and O’Connor said the panhandlers seem to know what they’re legally allowed to do and, for the most part, stay within the law.
“I still see them out there, even in this summer heat,” O’Connor said. “They really don’t cause problems, per se, except when somebody stops in traffic and hands them a bill.
“The problem is, people are giving them money,” he added. “As long as that continues, the panhandlers will be out there.”
The panhandlers interviewed last week by Vero Beach 32963 at three local intersections – U.S. 1 and 17th Street, U.S. 1 and Aviation Boulevard, and Beachland Boulevard and A1A – all had their own story.
Some had been panhandling for years. Others were new to the lifestyle. All said they were once productive members of society, only to be driven to desperation by health issues, the loss of their jobs or other cruel twists of fate.
A man who identified himself as Kevin said he had been an electrician for 27 years, working locally at Indian River Medical Center and Sam’s Club, but he recently turned to panhandling because a severe hernia – which he was quick to display – prevents him from doing his job.
A woman who identified herself at Cynthia said she lives “in the woods” and has been panhandling for two years, since losing her housekeeping job at Historic Dodgertown and being unable to pay the rent at her 26th Street home.
The man on the island said he “used to have a lot of money,” but he lost it all in a divorce. He said he can’t work because he has a “bad back” and a “bad heart valve that needs surgery,” so he turned to panhandling.
“All I own is what I’m wearing and what I’ve got on that bicycle, so I have no choice,” he said. “I’ve been in Vero Beach about two months, but I’ve only been on this corner a few days.
“I tried doing it by the Cumberland Farms on U.S. 1, but there was a guy on every corner,” he added. “So I thought I’d come over here and see how it goes.
“The first couple of days were pretty good, but I’ve haven’t gotten much love lately.”
The panhandlers said local law enforcement checks on them regularly, but not to hassle anyone. Instead, the roadside beggars praised the police officers and sheriff’s deputies for being courteous, even helpful.
“The police come by every day and they’re always friendly,” the island panhandler said. “One of the guys saw my sign, which says ‘HELP,’ and told me I should add the word, ‘PLEASE.’ He also told me to go to a shelter called The Source, which was really nice.”
Cynthia, who for months has been panhandling at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Aviation Boulevard, said the bicycle she rides around town was given to her by Teddy Floyd, the Sheriff’s Office’s community relations deputy.
She said some motorists or their passengers yell obscenities at her as they pass by, but she shrugs them off.
“People don’t know our stories,” Cynthia said, adding that she’s always polite and grateful when drivers offer cash, food, clothing and shoes. “We have backgrounds. A lot of us have gotten educations and had jobs. We just fell.
“We’re not scumbags.”
As for the city’s anti-panhandling signs, the panhandlers say they’ve noticed no real difference in behavior. While some drivers point to them and shrug, others ignore them, open their windows and continue to give money.
“The people who are going to give, they’re going to give, anyway,” Cynthia said. “The people who aren’t going to give, now they have an excuse. But do the signs bother me? Absolutely not.”
What does bother her, she said, is being on the roadside begging – something she says is temporary.
“I hate this,” Cynthia said. “I don’t want to be out here. Most of us don’t want to be doing this. But for some of us, we’ll starve if we don’t. And as long as we stay out of the road, there’s no law against it.”
As O’Connor said: “We can’t prohibit people from standing on the sidewalk.”
Or going to get a cold beer between panhandling shifts.