Joel McGlone sits on a rounded concrete utility stoop on the side of Bee Ridge Road at the intersection of U.S. 41 and watches late- morning traffic zoom past.
Two minutes later, the driver of a black Nissan sports car stops for the red light. The driver calls McGlone over and hands him a $20 bill.
“That’s a blessing,” says McGlone, 50. “People help.”
Earlier in the day someone else bought McGlone coffee. Another resident — a young man who had once been homeless, himself — bought him a cheeseburger from the nearby McDonald’s. And on a cold day, someone gave him a sweater.
McGlone does “all right,” earning between $30 and $50 a day. He knows of others who sometimes collect more than $100 in a day through panhandling.
McGlone is one of the homeless people in Sarasota who “flies signs” at busy intersections on U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue and downtown to the Bee Ridge corner. The number of people who holds signs and ask for money has increased from last winter and spread further from downtown to busy intersections on the outskirts of town, noted several homeless people and Sarasota police officials.
Even over the past few weeks, Police Capt. Paul Sutton has “seen more people out with signs.”
Although some drivers stop to give cash or passers-by buy McGlone lunch, it’s a hard life, he says.
“It is a different stress than paying all the bills,” McGlone said. “I worry if I will get rained on at night.”
During winter, he tries to stay warm. In the summer, the heat becomes unbearable.
In the past, McGlone tried to keep an eye out for police officers. If he saw one, he would put his sign down — hoping not to attract attention.
He has not been issued a citation in Sarasota, but he has been told to “move on.”
“You’ve got to just move,” he said.
McGlone said some sign holders will get into the police officer’s face and argue and curse at the officer, and that’s when problems arise.
“You can’t blame nothing on the police,” McGlone said. “I just try to be polite and courteous.”
Over the past few weeks, McGlone has not worried about catching the police’s attention for holding his sign, which reads “Homeless Need Work.”
On Jan. 7, the City Commission suspended enforcement of the city’s sign-holding law, also known as ordinance 23-1, after the city attorney told them the law was unconstitutional. Friday, Feb. 1, a judge ordered a temporary injunction forbidding police officers from telling homeless people holding signs to move elsewhere.
The injunction came after the Sarasota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit to prevent the police department from enacting ordinance 23-1. By prohibiting panhandlers from holding signs that solicit money from passing motorists, Circuit Court Judge Rick DeFuria said the ordinance violated federal free speech protections.
“Whether someone is holding a sign that reads ‘Homeless Please Help’ or a sign about the second amendment, the courts don’t distinguish,” said City Attorney Bob Fournier. “Free speech is free speech.”
McGlone, who was at the Bee Ridge intersection four days after the injunction, said word about the court order had spread quickly, but he figured the city would enact another version of the law soon.
“For now, it’s good,” said McGlone.
And, it appears likely that the City Commission will review a draft of a new ordinance soon. Fournier said he will meet with Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and a representative from the ACLU this week, and that he would be preparing a draft of a new ordinance on which commissioners could vote.
The new ordinance could model Tampa’s law that prohibits the exchange of money between motorists and someone standing beside the roadway. Other cities with a similar law allow fundraising but require collectors to wear vests that let people know they are fundraisers, Fournier said.
‘Trying to keep it going’
On Monday afternoon, two men stood in the medians at the corner of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue. A 31-year-old homeless man, who would only give his first name, Steve, said those who fly signs call the median on Gulfstream “the gauntlet.”
It’s a dangerous median, barely wide enough to stand on, with six lanes (two southbound, two northbound and two to turn west onto the Ringling Causeway) of cars speeding past.
“I was stranded here,” Steve said about how he ended up in Sarasota. The Rhode Island native was in town working at a furniture-liquidation store when his boss left town earlier this winter without paying Steve and his brother their wages, he said.
Last month, Steve was issued a citation for soliciting funds at the gauntlet. Early Monday, Feb. 4, he was in court. The citation was dropped.
Just before his court case, Steve learned that a judge had ordered the injunction against the city’s sign-holding ordinance.
“That’s why I am here,” he said Monday.
Just across the intersection on a wider concrete median in the middle of U.S. 41, Seann Manning, 42, stands holding his sign that reads, “Homeless, Any Work or Help Is A Blessing. God Bless.”
“The ones who fly signs are the ones who are trying to keep it going,” Manning said before he went to stand in the median opposite from “the gauntlet” where Steve stood.
Manning, a Sarasota native, said his carpentry business dissolved after he injured his back when he fell 28 feet from a ladder while framing a house.
He said some people make $100 to $150 if they stay out all day holding a sign. Most of the money Manning makes, usually $20 to $30 a day, goes toward essentials such as hygiene items and food. On Sunday, he went to Walmart and purchased hygiene items and did laundry. Sometimes he will go to Patellini’s for pizza — but only when he can afford the $2.85-a-slice cost.
Sometimes people will yell at Manning while he holds his sign, which he keeps folded and tucked under his shirt when he’s not flying it. He’ll hear “Get a job!” or “Get out of our town!”
“I was born here,” Manning said. “This is my town.”
Manning said he plans to get his driver’s license soon and try to find a job so he can afford to rent an apartment.
“I don’t want to be doing this,” he said.
Finding a new start will be difficult for McGlone.
Even if the city drafts a new ordinance, McGlone says he’ll take his chances and go back to the street holding a sign.
Until he lands a job, he has to do it to make a living.
McGlone said, so far, he is unemployable because of his criminal record.
Last year, he found a job working with a local catering company. He said he worked hard and liked the job.
“I never wore a tie and nice shirt before,” McGlone said. “It was fantastic.”
But after four or five days the manager called McGlone in and told him they had to let him go because they had found out he was a convicted felon.
McGlone was convicted of assault and kidnapping when he was 18 years old. He said the charges were a result of him hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“I’d rather be working than sitting on this stoop,” he said.
“If it is between a kid out of high school or a convicted fellow, who will they pick for a job?” McGlone asked.
McGlone has been attending New Life Worship Center, and he says members of the church have been helpful. So far they’ve bought him new socks, T-shirts and underwear. And they are trying to get him involved in a program that will help him find steady work.
In the meantime, McGlone said he will stay out on the street with his sign. He has quit drinking, and he tries to stay away from a homeless crowd downtown that he said just want to drink and smoke incense to get high. He takes odd labor jobs when he can, such as laying tile or digging a ditch.
“I just sit here and watch the cars,” McGlone said. “And I bless them when they come by.”
Although the city can no longer enforce its sign-solicitation ordinance 23-1, City Attorney Bob Fournier explains that the following laws remain enforceable:
• Panhandling is illegal within 20 feet of a bank teller.
• Panhandling is illegal from sundown to sunrise and on private property, without permission of the property owner.
• Aggressive panhandling, such as following someone and asking for money, is illegal.