Beggars without golden voices
Ronald Gillenwater is one of about 20 homeless people who panhandle at Neil Avenue and I-670 in the Arena District. Photo by Jeffry Konczal.
For most of us, panhandlers barely exist. They blend into the scenery or they’re mild nuisances. We avert our eyes as we walk or drive past. Or if we notice them at all, we complain about their polluting presence, as if they’re litter on the side of the road.
Then, Dispatch videographer Doral Chenoweth III found a wild-haired man named Ted Williams at a Columbus highway exit and everything changed, at least for one minute and 37 seconds. Chenoweth’s video forced us to open our eyes (and ears) and upended our notion of what a roadside beggar should act or sound like. Williams had dreams, hopes, talent. He wasn’t trash; he was more like us—except with a better voice.
Williams, in many ways, typifies the guys—and they’re mostly guys—begging for money at the side of the road. He had problems with drugs and alcohol, and run-ins with the law. He lived off the land, staying in a tent behind a gas station. And he had a gimmick—a “God given gift of voice,” as his now famous sign announced. “They call it ‘flying a sign,’ ” says longtime homeless advocate Ken Andrews. “A certain breed does it. The folks who do this are more on the hustler side.”
They know misery sells. The more rotten the weather, the better, and a wheelchair or some other prop can be an effective tool. In early February, Andrews ran across a guy at Lane Avenue and Rt. 315 racking up money thanks to his dog with a lame leg. And a few months back, what appeared to be a family—mom, dad and a baby in a stroller—set up camp on Weber Road at I-71. The touching sight was hard for drivers to resist. Andrews estimates the trio made $70 to $80 in two or three hours. However, folks might have been less generous if they took a closer look: The baby, wrapped in a blanket, was a doll.
And while rookies go with simple messages (“homeless,” “will work for food”), the smart ones try to stand out. They might sing a song, claim to be a veteran or cancer patient or deliver a message with a twist. The latest trend is total honesty (“Why lie? I need a beer?”), a pitch that’s pretty effective with the frat-boy demographic. “They have a little bit of ad man in them,” Andrews says. “They’re able to interpret what the public wants or what the public will give money to.”
Many panhandlers are hard-core homeless cases, desperate folks who live in makeshift camps beyond the reach of most social service agencies. “It’s a population that’s kind of expendable, really,” says Andrews, the coordinator for Mount Carmel Mobile Outreach. On a Tuesday morning in early January, Andrews found a man with a broken arm in a tent in one of these camps. “He got beaten up by a guy with a two-by-four on Sunday night,” Andrews says. Andrews immediately got him medical attention. “He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t move,” he says. “I think he would have died.”
While Williams was trying to leverage his improbable Internet fame into a new life this winter, plenty of other folks were flying signs all over Columbus, shivering in the snow and cold. You could find them at shopping centers, public buildings, concert venues, crowded sidewalks. They go wherever people or cars congregate, especially highway ramps: Hudson Street and I-71 (Williams’s old stomping grounds), West Broad Street and I-70 and a tangle of ramps and intersections along Neil Avenue in the Arena District, where an estimated 20 homeless folks fly signs.
They’re beggars without golden voices, and there will be no fairy-tale endings for most of them. Tragedy, in fact, is more likely.
Mike sits on the steps of a boarded-up brick house on Goodale Boulevard in Victorian Village. Next to him is his backpack, his third one since he first became homeless in 2008 (two others were stolen in shelters). The Columbus native and his campmate Danny Holcomb are taking turns flying a sign at Goodale and Neil on this afternoon in February. They are part of a large group of homeless folks who work the intersection, as well as the nearby I-670 ramps. “We have to watch out for each other,” says Mike, 50, who declines to give his last name. “Some of us are out here individually. Some of us are out here together. But the fact of the matter is we are all out here.”
Tears run down Mike’s face as he talks about his life. Once, he was an assistant store manager for Big Bear. Then he lost his job when the chain’s parent company went bankrupt. His life hasn’t recovered since. “I drink,” he says. “I’m not going to lie to you. I drink because I just try to go to sleep. I suffer from depression and anxiety.”
He’s been homeless every winter for the past three years. He had an apartment on Parsons Avenue, but lost it when he got laid off from his job doing seasonal construction work in the fall. He now lives under a bridge, and he says he’s unable to pay the $700 a month he owes in child support. “They’re ready to throw me in jail,” he says. “And the bad thing about it is I’ve come to the conclusion I don’t really care. I mean, it’s three hots and a cot. It’s a roof over my head.”
Mike says he spends most mornings at the downtown library, filling out applications online. “You think I want to panhandle from these people?” he says. “This is humbling and humiliating. It’s actually humbling and humiliating. I worked a job. I was a manager at Big Bear.”
His friend Holcomb joins the conversation, and Mike’s mood improves. “This man has been out here three times longer than I have,” Mike says.
“That’s my brother right there,” says Holcomb, an ex-con who’s been on the streets for 11 years “There’s nothing I won’t give him.”
Mike smiles when Holcomb talks about police harassment. Panhandlers aren’t hurting people, Holcomb says; they wield signs, not guns. “Look, this sign has no bullets in it,” he says.
Holcomb heads back to the intersection, his sign in hand. “I got to go back to work,” he says.
Mike laughs. “He calls it work.”
A couple of minutes later, Holcomb is back. “Mike, roll this for me,” he says, handing his friend paper and tobacco.
Holcomb, 52, struggles with his fine motor skills. In 2003, he nearly died in a fire. He says he was passed out drunk in his camp under the bridge when someone doused him in gasoline and set him on fire. He was saved by a police officer who sprayed him with an extinguisher. A medical helicopter took him to Ohio State University Medical Center, where he recovered for months and learned to walk again. No one was ever charged in the fire, he says, though Holcomb thinks he knows who did it. He says the person mistakenly thought he stole a TV and radio from her van.
He suffered third-degree burns from the waist down, and he lifts up a pant leg, exposing pockmarked, discolored skin. “See this? It’s not my leg. It’s all dead body.”
Three days later, Holcomb is back at the intersection. He’s by himself this time. It’s the coldest day of the year, and a small icicle hangs from his gray beard. He holds a sign that says “homeless vet” (he says he did six weeks of basic training). The sign is effective. He says one guy saw it and squealed across a couple lanes of traffic to give him a dollar. The man told Holcomb that his brother, a Vietnam vet, had died two months ago.
Holcomb carries a backpack with him. Inside he keeps clothes, tools, legal documents, deodorant and beer, among other items. “I got a little bit of everything in here,” he says. Life is tough, no doubt, but he had a good moment recently. In early February, he watched the Super Bowl at the Short North Tavern. He had a little money in his pocket and enjoyed himself so much he bought a beer for a stranger. “It’s been rough, but I’m making it,” he says.
The campus area attracts plenty of panhandlers. Ohio State students are known for their generosity, and Gary Towns can attest to that. He made $56 on a recent day in early January panhandling on High Street. Meanwhile, other folks bought him food: a burger and fries at Wendy’s, a burrito from Chipotle, nachos from a United Dairy Farmers store. He’s tried other areas of town such as the Short North, but nothing tops the University District. He even got game tickets once from a football player in the fall. “I make a better hustle out here,” he says, standing on a High Street sidewalk.
A graduate of East High School, Towns, 49, says he attended Ohio University for two years and once dreamed of becoming a police officer or an actor. He left school to join the U.S. Navy, where he says he developed alcohol issues. “That’s where I learned how to drink,” he says. He served two years in prison for robbery and was paroled in April 2010. He also has battled mental problems and been homeless off and on since 2004. He says he spent time recently at the Twin Valley psychiatric hospital in the Hilltop. “I was suicidal,” he says.
Towns stands in front of the Newport Music Hall on a Friday night in January. A line forms as people wait for the doors to open for tonight’s show, a performance by Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead tribute band. Towns talks to a guy in dreadlocks for several minutes. “I’m helping him sell tickets,” he says later. “He said he was going to give me a dollar.”
Another panhandler—known for his exuberant repetition of the catchphrase “help is on the way”—often beseeches folks lining up for Newport shows. Towns is more low-key. He jiggles his cup a bit and says “a little help” in a quiet voice. He urges a reporter to write about the other guy, whom Towns suspects is at the Kid Rock show at Value City Arena tonight. “ ‘Help is on the way’—that is your best story,” he says. “Everybody knows him. Everybody knows ‘help is on the way.’ ”
A few days later, another man was flying a sign in the shadow of an even more famous panhandler. Victor Houston stood in the snow at the southbound I-71 exit at Hudson, the same ramp where Ted Williams was discovered.
Houston, 54, knew Williams well. In fact, they shared a tent together, behind the abandoned BP gas station on the other side of the overpass. “I let him in my tent when he needed a place to stay,” Houston says. “I showed him how to fly signs, and that’s what made him big.”
They lived in that tent together until Williams went viral. Since then, Houston says he saw Williams just once—about a week earlier. A Chevy Blazer drove up to Houston, who was standing at the Hudson ramp. Williams opened the window, gave Houston $20 and then drove away. (The encounter occurred shortly after Williams dropped out of a Texas rehab center, which he’d entered at the urging of TV talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw.)
Houston, a former commercial painter, says he’s been homeless for three and a half years. He says he’s collecting money on this day to repay a $5 debt he owes a friend. He cuts off the interview and declines to pose for a picture after a reporter and a photographer refuse to give him money. “I’m not getting nothing out of it,” he says, turning away and pointing his sign at oncoming traffic.
Andrews approaches a trio of homeless folks sharing a 40-ounce bottle of beer. A former outreach coordinator with the Open Shelter, he is one of the few social workers in town who focuses on helping people in homeless camps, setting them up with clothing, tents and other essentials. “Is Dave back there?” Andrews asks.
Dave Powell sits on a milk crate behind a Franklinton gas station. “They call me Crazy Dave,” Powell says, “coast to coast, all 48 states.” He’s been homeless since 1986, and he’s the senior leader of the camp behind an Arby’s restaurant across the street. Powell and other members of his camp have put together a pretty good operation at West Broad and I-70. While a couple of folks fly signs at the ramps, another person looks out for police. When they’re done, they pool their money and enlist one person (usually the most presentable) to buy booze for everyone. “They’re very good at it,” Andrews says.
Life on the streets has been hard on Powell: He’s missing two front teeth, and he looks older than his 57 years. But he’s a survivor, and he won’t back down from anyone. A car pulls into the alley behind the gas station, and a young guy yells something. Powell charges him, ready to fight. “Shut the fuck up!” Powell shouts. “What do you need?”
The young guy gets out of the car. He looks a little worse for wear, with a bandage on his face, and he has no desire to fight. “Hey, you old motherfucker,” he says. “It’s me. We were in jail together.”
They hug, talk for a few seconds. The young guy gets back in the car and drives away, while Powell returns to his milk crate.
Andrews eyes one of Powell’s drinking buddies, a middle-aged guy with glasses and a knit cap.
“I know you,” Andrews says. “Where did you work before?”
“Lindey’s,” the man says.
Andrews met the man, John McGhee, several years back when he came into the Open Shelter. He worked at the Bexley Monk at the time. “You told me what a sous chef was, if I remember right,” Andrews says.
McGhee, 46, says back in 1989 he was a sous chef at Lindey’s. Later, he cooked at the Marion Country Club, where he says he was the head chef, and the now-defunct Bexley Monk, where he worked under former Lindey’s chef Jack Cory.
How did he end up on the street? “Because I’m a drunken bum,” he says. “It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.” He says he hasn’t cooked in a decade.
Andrews is startled by McGhee’s state. When he last saw him at the Open Shelter, McGhee didn’t drink. He gently suggests entering rehab. “I say that to you because I remember when you worked,” he says. “I remember when you were sober. There’s always a chance. You saw that guy the other day, the golden voice.”
After the encounter, Andrews contacted Southeast, a mental health center that works with the homeless. The agency’s mobile care unit was supposed to look for McGhee the following week, but it never got a chance. Two days after Andrews saw him, there was a fire at McGhee’s homeless camp. Investigators suspect a spark from a warming fire engulfed his wood shanty, perhaps while McGhee was sleeping or passed out. McGhee suffered extensive burns—and died.
Investigators used fingerprints to identify his body, says Franklin County Coroner Jan Gorniak, who declined to issue a cause of death in early February until she had the results of a toxicology test. “The people he was with had said he was drinking pretty heavy,” says Columbus Fire battalion chief David Whiting.
Instead of helping McGhee rebuild his life, Andrews is now planning his funeral. “All these guys’ lives are tenuous,” he says.
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.