I already knew exactly what this column would say. I just needed to collect some ammunition to prove my point.
But what I went looking for was not what I found. So that’s not the column you’re going to get.
The topic: panhandling.
It’s a hot issue at the moment, with Fairlawn passing a new law, Summit County considering one and Akron revisiting its own.
A local landlord invited me to accompany him as he offered odd jobs to some of those omnipresent people with the cardboard signs claiming to want work.
Gene Testa owns 22 rental properties and was looking for folks to help with routine tasks such as painting and light yardwork. When he made the rounds of panhandlers a while back, every person he approached “looked at me like I’m some type of alien.”
Nobody wanted to work. Not the bums in North Hill or Wallhaven or the Merriman Valley or Montrose.
A number of them told Testa they were making good money just holding their signs.
Other credible folks passed along similar stories. A Copley school official told me he had made the rounds in Montrose, seeking temporary help, and was turned down consistently.
Copley police talked about a guy who had been begging in a wheelchair — a wheelchair that had been purloined from nearby Levin Furniture.
Bath police talked about two beggars getting into a fistfight over a lucrative location.
Half a dozen readers contacted me during the past year to recount conversations in which panhandlers admitted they were being paid by someone else to stand there.
I personally had driven past scammers in Montrose during what could only be called “shift changes” — one “homeless” guy would pack up his sign and milk crate just as another was arriving.
So I figured this would be easy pickin’s. I would ride along with Testa and nail them in their sloth and write the definitive column about panhandling. It would say that every person with a hand-made sign and a hang-dog look is really a lazy slimeball looking for —and receiving — a free ride.
Except that’s not what we found. Not even close.
Our first stop on a Tuesday morning was on East Market Street, a few blocks east of Main Street.
A man in his 30s eagerly approached the car. After Testa introduced himself and said what he was after, the man identified himself as Scott and said he could do cleaning, cooking or just about anything else.
When Testa asked Scott whether he had an “Obama Phone,” he answered affirmatively and provided his number.
(The program to provide free phones to low-income people actually began with wired phones during the Reagan administration and has expanded to include cell phones. You and I pay for the program through the “universal service fee” that appears each month on our cell-phone bills. But that’s a topic for another day.)
To be honest, I was disappointed when Scott said he was ready and willing to earn Testa’s money. But I was confident he would prove to be an aberration.
As Testa and I drove around in his black Mercedes 350, the longtime resident of Copley (and cousin of well-known builder Paul Testa) talked about growing up on North Hill with Italian immigrant parents who preached the gospel of education.
Gene Testa graduated from Archbishop Hoban and the University of Akron and spent 15 years in international sales, mainly in Asia, for Fomo Products in Norton, which makes foam insulation.
In the early ’90s, he bought a small house next to his parents’ home, mainly to acquire its garage. When he was able to rent that house, he bought another, and another, and today he owns single-family houses in Akron, Florida and North Carolina.
Testa can afford to drive a Mercedes not only because he is smart, educated and lucky, but because he has worked his tail off.
The man behind the wheel seemed to be the antithesis of a shaggy-looking fellow we found at one of the most popular begging spots in town, the intersection of Goodkirk and Buchtel on the eastern edge of the University of Akron campus.
I was doubtful this fellow’s name had ever been used in the same sentence as the word “motivated.” But Justin said he would like to paint, and asked for Testa’s phone number.
Testa and I exchanged puzzled looks.
Out in Montrose, we spotted a woman sitting in front of a gas station on the Bath side of state Route 18. The side of the street is significant, because the other side is in Fairlawn, which just passed a law requiring beggars to get a license and restricting where they can stand.
Margie did get her license, she said, but the new restrictions required her to move from her favorite corner all the way back to Max & Erma’s, where donations dropped so precipitously that she switched to her present corner.
Margie said she couldn’t work because of a disability, but quickly volunteered the services of her husband, Craig, whom she said was great at maintenance. Again Testa asked about an “Obama Phone,” and again a number was eagerly provided.
Our next encounter, back near UA, introduced us to Michael, who made the other UA guy look like George Clooney in a tux.
Michael initially said his availability would be limited — ah ha! — but then explained why: He panhandles only on his days off from the menial job he holds at a Montrose restaurant.
He, too, volunteered the number of his free phone in the hope that Testa would give him extra work.
We couldn’t initially get close to Beggar No. 5, at Perkins and state Route 8, so she had to walk across the intersection, and did so with a limp.
Although Susan is hampered by rheumatoid arthritis, she said, she could certainly lend Testa a hand because “I’m a jack of all trades.” She had no phone but gave him her daughter’s number so they could hook up.
Scoreboard: 5 for 5 willing to work.
Or at least saying they were willing to work.
Same bottom line
Five people is not exactly a scientific sample, and I still don’t believe the majority of people who panhandle in Greater Akron are the real deal.
On the other hand, it’s clear that not all of them are frauds.
The problem is this: You can’t tell by looking who is gaming you and who isn’t.
And that’s why I refuse to give any of them a dime.
If everyone quit handing them money, the panhandling problem would evaporate. Then we wouldn’t be spending all this time trying to figure out how to keep them in check without violating their right to free speech.
If you want to help the downtrodden, much better ways exist. Give your dollars to the Haven of Rest, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, the Salvation Army, Summit County Family Promise or any other legitimate agency.
That way you’ll know your money is going to people who really need it.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.