As a steady stream of cars poured out of the Spokane Valley Wal-Mart parking lot last Tuesday, Boyce Cope stood at the exit with his “life’s story” printed in brief on cardboard sign.
“Disabled vet, wife has M.S., Need food” – a message so short and to the point, a motorist stuck at a traffic light could commit it to memory.
But few people were willing to look Cope’s way. A woman in a red Ford Taurus parked right in front of Cope, looked at the 70-year-old panhandler once, then did her best to stare the other way. A mom driving a turquoise Dodge Caravan glared at Cope briefly before focusing on the traffic light as if she was trying to will it from red to green. Her children couldn’t keep their eyes off Cope.
Twenty cars rolled by when the light turned green, most turning right onto Broadway Avenue, which meant they all had to pass within two feet of Cope and his cardboard sign. Plastic sacks of Wal-Mart goods could be seen in the backseats of some vehicles.
Not one can of food landed on the roadside, not one nickel, either.
“I started doing this about seven or eight months ago,” said Cope, who is not homeless and drives to this spot several times a week to beg for charity. “Me and my wife, we live on Social Security and we don’t have enough money for food after the bills are paid. One day, she says, ‘Hey, why don’t you get yourself a piece of cardboard and stand out there like those other guys.’ It was pretty demoralizing at first.”
At that moment, a car pulls into the parking lot next to Cope. An elderly woman who appears to be about the same age as Cope, hands him a big deli sandwich before driving away. He retreats to the comfort of his aging Chrysler K-car and chows down. He probably won’t return to the corner for another shift today, Cope said. Another person has been waiting for a turn.
It is the season in Spokane Valley for destitute souls to stand at busy intersections asking for whatever passing motorists will spare. Not that the practice ever goes out of season, but spring is when more intersections seem to be occupied and also when public complaints start to mount.
The matter was brought to the attention of Spokane Valley’s City Council last week.
“It does make our city look very shabby,” Gail Stiltner, told the council. “It does not enhance the image of our city.”
Stiltner said she had guests visiting from out of town who where shocked at the number of people standing at intersections looking for handouts. She suggested the council create a small task force to deal with the matter.
Later, she explained that giving the down and out money on the street corner just doesn’t seem to be the best way to help, and it could be dangerous, given the traffic speeding by.
“I think there are people who really are in need, but it does detract from our city and it’s just not how it should be,” she said. “We should spend some time looking at this.”
However, it might not be the government’s place to put the kibosh on people soliciting handouts. Tentatively, the City Council is scheduled to discuss panhandling at its May 22 meeting. There are laws Washington cities can use to address panhandling.
It’s been illegal since 2004 for anyone soliciting money to pass themselves off as a disabled veteran if they aren’t. Cope, for example, says he served in the Navy in the early 1960s, but when pressed for details about the name of his unit he replies “I can’t remember, that was a long time ago.”
There are laws prohibiting panhandling along highways and aggressive panhandling, meaning actually stopping someone to beg.
“It’s tough because there are people who are truly in need and for some people this is a way of life,” said Mayor Diana Wilhite. “The frustrating thing I’ve found is there are people out there who force the Council to regulate behavior that I wish we didn’t have to.”
Spokane Valley in its brief four-year history hasn’t tackled the issue. A lot of what occurs at the city’s busy intersections doesn’t fit the strict definition of panhandling, which is someone accosting people on the street to beg
“I’ve been doing this for 15 or 20 years and it’s legal,” said Joyce, who regularly stands at the corner of Pines Road and Sprague Avenue in a heavy winter coat holding a sign that reads “Need food. Can you spare change?”
Joyce declined to give her last name because she suspects a convicted murderer might escape from prison and come after her. Social service workers who interact with Joyce say off the record that she’s safer than she realizes. She has a place to stay and does receive public help with her living expenses.
“I’ve got a place to sleep. I’m not destitute, but I’m on disability,” she said.
Joyce is dead on about her rights to stand beside Sprague Avenue with a cardboard sign soliciting aid. Standing on the public right of way holding a sign is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants her free speech.
She would be outside the law if she was physically stopping people so she could beg for money, but Joyce doesn’t stop anyone, the traffic light does.
It’s not easy standing in the elements for hours on end, Joyce said. She started doing this several years ago after being injured in a car wreck. Joyce said before the wreck, she worked on the assembly line at Columbia Lighting.
Joyce, who said she’s 65, single and has no children, isn’t getting rich from change thrown by passersby. On a day when the temperature topped 80 degrees, she stood for an hour on Sprague Avenue and no one gave her money.
There’s a social element to standing on the street corner with a cardboard sign. One of Joyce’s friends, a 62-year-old man who goes by K. John, said getting out to Sprague and Pines helps his depression.
K. John is the one street personality we spoke with who is actually homeless. He relies on Truth Ministries in Spokane for shelter and takes the bus to Spokane Valley daily.
“I’m homeless because I choose to be,” K. John said. “I’m staying at a place I like and I don’t want a home.”
K. John also insists that he gives all the money he collects to charity, that is, charities other than K. John. He also claims to have collected $1,650.25 from passing motorists in just 74 hours. He’s clean shaven and clean dressed. He wears a baseball cap to keep the sun off his head and an Indian necklace and medicine bag to keep him safe.
What’s undeniable are some of K. John’s other claims. His health is not the best. K. John had open heart surgery less than 10 years ago and the long scar from his lower chest to his throat is very visible. Standing for long periods of time bothers his leg, which is where the arteries for his bypass surgery were harvested. Sometimes K. John uses a wheelchair, but he said he usually pawns it in the winter and he hasn’t got it out of hock yet.
K. Johns sign reads “just hungry,” but he’s a little thirsty, too.
“I do drink a little bit,” K. John said as he walked to the front door of the Denney’s restaurant on Pines, which serves alcohol. “I’m going have a drink now before I go to work.”