The director of the homeless service center 15 Place in downtown Mobile calls them “rainbow chasers” — unemployed, sometimes unemployable, people who’ve come to Mobile in hopes of striking oil cleanup gold.
“I would say easily since the debacle began, particularly in the last 60 or 70 days, we get two new people a day,” 15 Place Director Lyn Manz-Walters said. “I’m sure every city on the Gulf Coast would tell you the same thing.”
One man took a bus from out of state to Mobile after seeing reports on TV. He firmly believed he’d be paid $1,500 a day plus per diem.
“They’re not so much stupid as they are desperate,” Manz-Walters said.
The same phenomenon has been experienced by Waterfront Rescue Mission shelters in Mobile and Pensacola, according to Bob Ham, vice president of development for the organization. The Mobile shelter recently re-allocated more beds for transients, cutting down on drug-addiction beds.
“We’ve seen men who truly need work come to town, and some end up staying with us. Some are from Alabama and some are from elsewhere, but we are having to accommodate more people,” he said.
Agencies that serve the homeless are required by the federal government to carefully track their clients, getting them to fill out a 20-minute questionnaire that asks, among other things, the ZIP code of their last address.
While the influx of BP job hunters is measurable, what’s less clear is whether it’s linked to a perceived increase in downtown panhandling in Mobile.
Linked or not, complaints about panhandling helped bring about the Downtown Mobile Alliance’s Civic Sidewalks Task Force, which has looked into the problem and has a two-pronged plan to address it.
“We understand through research and discussions that most panhandlers aren’t homeless, but that doesn’t mean a homeless person won’t ever ask for money,” said Carol Hunter of the Downtown Alliance.
The city had a no-panhandling law on the books, she said, but it was “unenforceable” because panhandling touches on the free speech element of the First Amendment.
“What has stood the test of appeals is to have clearly defined districts where panhandling isn’t allowed for very specific reasons,” Hunter said.
An ordinance is now in the works that would identify much of the downtown entertainment district as such a area.
The other prong is an education program for downtown workers and visitors, Hunter said. “According to our peers in other cities, if panhandlers don’t make money they move on,” she said.
The teachable message: If your faith or kindness compels you to give, do so to agencies that help the homeless.
“The panhandling money doesn’t go for food or shelter because they can already get that from the help agencies,” Hunter said. “It typically goes to self-destructive behavior.”
Fliers for downtown workers will not be subtle. In poster form, they ask, “Would you give a suicidal person a loaded gun? When we give money to panhandlers it’s the same thing, only slower.”
Said 15 Place’s Manz-Walters: “I had a guy tell me that he pulled in $380 a day cash — tax free — he was paying a mortgage with this money.
“He would put on scruffies, stand on a corner with a sign, clock in and out for lunch,” she said. “When I see people giving folks like that money, I want to shake them until their teeth fall out.”
Part of the problem is that Mobilians “are the most unbelievably generous people you will ever meet,” Manz-Walters said.