GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Police say there is little police can do as long as the panhandlers aren’t obstructing traffic.
If you travel on Archer Road or Southwest 16th Avenue near the hospitals, you may have seen Courtney Platz and thought, “jeez, these panhandlers are everywhere.”
Platz herself joked about the prevalence of people on streets and roads. Asking people in stopped cars to proffer a few dollars is “horrifying and humiliating,” she said, but something she and her husband need to do to pay her electric bill and other needs.
“We can’t afford to pay our bills on the $8.25 an hour my husband makes,” Platz said. “I never thought I would be doing this.”
Panhandlers have been road furniture on Gainesville streets for ages, but law enforcement and the public are noticing a lot more of them lately — seemingly on every corner in Gainesville and at all four Interstate 75 ramps on Newberry and Archer Roads.
Complaints have been lodged, mostly that some panhandlers are seeking donations too aggressively or leaving behind a mess of litter when they pull up stakes.
Law enforcement rarely does anything, but there is little it can do as long as the panhandlers aren’t obstructing traffic.
“We have gotten calls and numerous messages through social media with people complaining about it. Just about anywhere you go there is a noticeable increase in panhandling activity,” said Alachua County sheriff’s spokesman Art Forgey. “As long as they are on public property, we are not doing anything about it. Deputies just go on — unless they have a complaint, there is nothing they can do.”
The city of Gainesville has panhandling ordinances on the books, but the Gainesville Police Department is not enforcing them due to federal court rulings, said GPD spokesman Ben Tobias.
“I understand the city is in the process of attempting to rewrite the ordinances, but we currently cannot enforce the ordinances as they are on the books,” Tobias wrote in an email Tuesday.
Some panhandlers, such as Platz, have homes. Others, such as Leon Johnson and Terry Debrule, don’t.
The men were stationed on opposite sides of the Interstate 75 northbound exit ramp at Newberry Road and said they are just biding time in Gainesville until they can get home — Lake City for Johnson and Panama City for Debrule.
Johnson, carrying a sign reading “Share the love. God bless,” said he is one of about 25 men who sleep in an embankment behind a Newberry Road gas station. He came to Gainesville to visit a friend, who died.
“Right now, I’m trying to get some money to get a motel room to stay out of the weather,” Johnson said. “I’m going back to Lake City after Tuesday.”
Debrule has a tent at the interchange for shelter. He came to Gainesville after visiting a brother in Live Oak.
“I’m fixing to go to Panama City. I have a job as soon as I get there. I just trying to get up the money to get there, or I’ll hitchhike,” Debrule said. “I have to eat. I don’t have a job here, so I have no choice but to do it.”
The Newberry Road/I-75 interchange is a particularly crowded spot for panhandlers. They can often been seen under the overpass and fragments of littered signs along the road hint at their stories — “prego wife. Please help,” read one.
Platz is among many across the country whose lives have been turned upside down by drug addiction.
After attending college in Nashville, Tennessee, Platz came to Gainesville to attend the zoo animal technology program at Santa Fe College, she said. Her life took a turn south with an addiction to painkillers following an accident, which led to the abuse of other drugs. She said she met her husband, John Schmidlapp, in rehab.
Both have been clean and sober for about a year, she said, and recently got involved with the University City Church of Christ — she was baptized — and hopes that the worst is behind her. She hopes she and Schmidlapp won’t have to ask motorists for money much longer.
“It’s a complete dichotomy,” Platz said. “People are either really understanding and they will listen and give you a chance or they have already decided that you’re a junkie and if they give me money I’m going to buy a bottle or a pill. They’ve already made up their minds.”
Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com