Justin Morles walked along a traffic median in Baltimore’s Otterbein neighborhood Wednesday gripping a cardboard sign that bore a simple request — he needs help and a job.
However, the homeless man’s pleas to motorists on busy Conway Street were met this week increasingly with a click of car door locks.
Since the story of a woman who was fatally stabbed in Baltimore while helping a panhandler made national news this week, Morles and some of Baltimore’s other homeless citizens who panhandle in the Inner Harbor, Downtown West and Otterbein neighborhoods say they have seen the number of motorists willing to lower their windows dive.
“It’s embarrassing, it’s hurtful,” Morles said of hearing the car doors lock. “They’re acting like I’m not a person.”
Harford County resident Jacquelyn Smith, 54, was fatally stabbed about 12:30 a.m. Saturday after giving money to a woman in the rain at Valley and East Chase streets in Johnston Square.
Smith was seated in the front passenger seat of her car and had rolled down her window to give money to a woman carrying what appeared to be a baby and holding a cardboard sign that said “Please Help me feed my Baby.” A man then approached the car and tried to grab Smith’s wallet. After a struggle, police said, the man took out a knife and stabbed Smith.
The story made national news this week, prompting an outpouring of support for the Smith family and widespread shock and outrage about violence against a good Samaritan.
Some, however, also pointed to Smith’s death as warning to avoid interactions with panhandlers and homeless. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey tweeted about the incident Tuesday, saying she had lowered her window for panhandlers many times but would “think twice” before doing it again.
For some of the homeless people in Baltimore who depend on panhandling, Smith’s death has dealt a devastating blow to the generosity they count on from motorists.
Morles tried positioning himself near an active construction site on West Conway Street Wednesday, where workers could be seen from the roadway. The 35-year-old hoped the workers’ presence would make drivers feel that it was less risky to roll down their windows for him while they waited for traffic lights to turn green.
“It messes with me,” Morles said of people’s fear of interacting with him.
Morles usually panhandles for about four hours a day, between his morning methadone treatments that stave off his heroin cravings and the 2:30 p.m. deadline to check into a shelter for the night. If Morles misses the check-in, he said, he is not allowed to sleep there for the night.
In those four hours panhandling, Morles asks for job leads and tries to make about $20 — just enough to pay for a pack of cigarettes and some fast food that will keep him full until the next day. On Wednesday, he panhandled for about six hours and made only $4.
“My main thing is I want a job,” he said. The attack “is going to make it harder. Who’s going to take a chance on me now?”
Stereotyping of the homeless is a pervasive problem that tends to gain traction when stories like Smith’s gain attention, said Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore.
“What happened last weekend is a horrible crime,” Lindamood said, “but it really has nothing to do with property homelessness and public begging.”
He said the irony of refusing to interact with homeless people and those who panhandle is that it can worsen their isolation and inability to rejoin mainstream society.
“Whenever fear is involved like this, whenever there’s over-generalization from an isolated incident, it tends to dehumanize and other-ize and push us away from one another,” Lindamood said. “If we're really going to change the conversation, we've got to recognize our shared humanity. And that doesn't happen when we're scared of one another.”
Keith Pearson, 32, has been living on the streets of Baltimore since his wife died about three years ago. He often wanders between cars that are stopped at traffic lights near the Baltimore Convention Center and Camden Yards, asking drivers for change.
Since Smith’s killing, Pearson has noticed people are treating him with more apprehension than usual.
One passerby spotted him walking down the street this week, turned around and sprinted in the opposite direction. Another man rolled down his window and appeared to jokingly ask if Pearson was going to stab him.
“Yesterday was real bad,” he said of panhandling Tuesday. “We’re talking three to four hours, to make not even what it cost to go to Burger King.”
Lee Martin of the Our Daily Bread hot meal program in Baltimore has some advice for those looking to help the homeless in a safe and constructive way. He recommended carrying a list of charitable organizations that offer free services, meals and beds. The strategy gives people an easy way to direct those who struggle with what he called residence poverty to find the organizations that are immediately available to address their needs, he said.
Neighbors who spot people in crisis on the street can also call the United Way of Central Maryland at 211 or the Baltimore City non-emergency help service at 311, Lindamood said. Those services have trained outreach workers who can come offer assistance to those in need of shelter and medical aid, he said.
Pearson said the one aspect of panhandling that people do not seem to consider is that asking for change is better than stealing food out of desperation.
“This is the humble way,” he said. “I’d rather humbly ask somebody instead of take.”