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Panhandlers in Philly traffic ply a lucrative, but dangerous, trade

There's money to be made at the conflux of Philadelphia's highways, but not without risk.

Panhandlers asking for money on the road from the Ben Franklin Bridge to I-676 are a familiar sight in Philadelphia.
Panhandlers asking for money on the road from the Ben Franklin Bridge to I-676 are a familiar sight in Philadelphia.Read moreSteven Falk

Making money at the convergence of Philadelphia's great highways hasn't been so easy since the first of the year.

In December, with nearby Franklin Square Park bejeweled with Christmas lights, passing motorists were generous. They gave money and items such as socks to combat the cold.

"People were giving us Christmas presents left and right," said Stephen Stackhouse, 35, who on a rainy morning wore a stocking cap and yellow plastic poncho.

With the holidays over, the money dried up. Maybe holiday credit card charges came due or maybe people were just tired of being hit up for cash by people standing in traffic. Whatever the reason, Stackhouse had made only $3 in an hour-and-a-half on a recent Monday.

He stood at Eighth Street beneath I-676, where the eastbound highway forks left to I-95 and right toward the Ben Franklin Bridge. He held an unevenly torn square of cardboard with "HOMELESS-HUNGRY-PLEASE HELP God Bless Thank You!!" written on it in fine penmanship. Car horns and 18-wheelers' growling engines echoed off concrete and steel, a dreadful cacophony.

Stackhouse, who has been homeless for five years, doesn't notice the noise anymore. Exhaust fumes don't bother him, either. He's been asking passing motorists for money at the nexus of on- and off-ramps near Eighth and Vine Streets for about two years, he said. Some drivers know him by name.

Panhandlers can make up to $20 an hour during rush hour, the regulars said, a lot more than a person might make standing on a city street corner. Donations of $1 and $5 bills are common, though occasionally someone will give $100. The intersection is coveted territory, and the regulars protect their claim.

"Once you realize the money you can make out here instead of in Center City …." said fellow panhandler T.J. Walsh, "there's more bang for your buck here."

If another person came around looking to work the area, "we'd run you off," Stackhouse said.

Until about 18 months ago, their activity could have led to jail time.

The police would issue obstructing-highways citations, which carried a $175 fine, but with court costs and fees, that could balloon to several hundred dollars.

Although the citation alone didn't lead to incarceration, it could count as a probation violation. That, or failing to pay the fine, caused people to go to jail. One man who panhandled in the lanes, Aaron Wicks, who goes by Gus, accumulated more than a dozen such citations between December 2015 and April 2016, which led to bench warrants, according to court records.

Stackhouse had the offense on his record, too, and said he has spent months in jail because of it.

"Most of the people out there asking for money, the overwhelming majority of those men and women are addicted," said Sister Mary Scullion, head of Project HOME, a Philadelphia-based homeless advocacy group. "They need money. Many of them have no source of income at all."

Walsh openly acknowledged that he is a heroin addict. Stackhouse said he's recently clean.

Walsh, originally of West Deptford, wanted to be a homicide detective when he graduated from college. But he broke his ankle on a construction site about a decade ago and got hooked on pills. Stackhouse, of Mount Holly, was an ironworker until he got a double hernia and was prescribed Percocet, he said. Pain control turned to addiction, and they turned from pills to cheap heroin as money became scarce.

The citations for obstructing highways criminalized homelessness, Scullion said, and she worried that an indigent person would be targeted while a firefighter asking for donations or person selling bottled water in the streets would not be cited for violating the law. In June 2016, Councilman Curtis Jones successfully advocated for legislation that shifted obstructing highways to a civil, not criminal, violation. The fine was decreased to $25, Philadelphia Police Capt. Sekou Kinebrew said, and it isn't considered a probation violation.

"We want the worst of the worst behind bars," Kinebrew said. "Someone who's out there panhandling is not someone we want behind bars."

That doesn't mean police, or Scullion, condone the practice.

Walking or standing in traffic is dangerous, Kinebrew said, and at the least, causes traffic backups.  The Philadelphia Police Department was not aware of a person injured or killed panhandling in traffic, and in 2017, there were no accidents involving a car hitting a person on foot in that area.

"It's still unwise to do it," Kinebrew said. "Consider 2017 a gift from God, because we still wouldn't advise standing in the middle of the street."

Beyond Center City, people also regularly panhandle between lanes on Delaware Avenue, Third and Callowhill Streets, and Roosevelt Boulevard, he said.

The guys who walk in traffic to ask for money know the risks. Walsh, standing on Eighth Street, watched two men a block away in the middle of moving traffic.

"You've got a guy on either side of the lane so the cars are being tunneled, and you're going to cause an accident," said Walsh, 35.

Like Stackhouse, Walsh, who has been homeless for three years, is tall and  thickly bearded, and has a sign asking for money.

Walsh said he is careful to give the cars the right of way.

"Stay out of the way," he advised. "Normally, people aren't going to stop or aren't going to see you."

Stackhouse has been doing this so long that he says he has the timing of the lights memorized. He steps out of the road when the lights turn green.

Others aren't as careful. Watching Wicks panhandle at North Franklin Street and I-676 is terrifying. He's in his 50s and has an unsteady gait. When the lights turn green, he stays in the stream of traffic on the six-lane road. He wanders along the lane markers, dwarfed by speeding Greyhound buses and trucks.

There's a technique to approaching drivers. Walsh tries to be on the road by 9:30 a.m., and comes back from 3 to 5 p.m., he said.

"I just try to be as passive as possible," Walsh said. "Obviously you've got your sign. They know why you're there."

Stackhouse said some people in passing cars call out as they go by: "Get a job" and "scumbag."

He said he defines himself by the things pride keeps him from doing. He won't perform sexual favors for money, which he has been asked to do, and he won't break into cars.

"That's not me," he said.

If possible, Stackhouse said, he tries to give something back in return for money. He's helped people with car trouble, he said, including changing flat tires.

When the light turns red and the cars slow, he prefers that his sign do the talking.

"I don't like walking up and approaching people and bothering people," he said. "I never walk up to people and ask for a dollar. That's just not me."