In east Fort Worth, taking aim at a new wave of panhandling
By MARTHA DELLER
FORT WORTH ó Pushed off street corners, out of parking lots and away from stores, some panhandlers have started going door to door.
Police report that the problem has cropped up across the city, but itís been more highly publicized in Meadowbrook, where neighborhood associations and Citizens on Patrol members have been working with police to curtail it.
"It seems to be a very small group of people who have adopted this style of panhandling because of our enforcement of the panhandling ordinance on the streets," said Capt. Bryan Sudan of the Police Departmentís East Division.
Meadowbrook resident Mike Phipps said the incidents began this year when a woman knocked on his door late at night claiming to work for his elderly neighbor.
The woman asked for gas money to get home to Weatherford, saying she arrived at work to find a note saying that her employer had been taken to the hospital.
Doubting her story, Phipps refused. After watching her approach other homes, he followed a van she was riding in. He warned her and her driver to leave the neighborhood. Then he called police.
As the panhandling schemes grew more convincing, Phipps began spreading the word at neighborhood meetings and police forums. He advised his neighbors to report the encounters to police, even if they didnít give money.
Phipps said the problem reached a peak around Thanksgiving, when requests for gas money were replaced by requests for rides to the hospital to visit sick relatives.
"Thatís where it started to cross the line in my mind," Phipps said. "When they try to get people out of their homes where theyíre safe into a vehicle where they have a purse or wallet, this crime could escalate into rape, robbery or murder."
With the help of residents, police identified one panhandler whose primary scam was asking for money to do yardwork ó without equipment.
Even though the manís criminal record included drugs, robbery and assault, Sudan said police couldnít do much but warn him to leave the neighborhood.
"What heís doing in and of itself is not a crime," Sudan said. "Itís not illegal to walk up to the front door and offer to do services unless you have a no-trespassing or -soliciting notice posted."
But police and neighborhood groups are continuing efforts to educate residents.
Over the past few weeks, hundreds of east Fort Worth residents have received a police tip sheet through neighborhood newsletters, churches and the police Web site.
"With the difficult economy, there could be an upswing in crime. People need to be more vigilant," said Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Hicks, whose District 8 includes Meadowbrook.
Sudan and Hicks hope to run the tips on the Fort Worth City Page in the Star-Telegram, in City Council newsletters and possibly in water bills.
Phipps has circulated his own flier warning panhandlers that residents will call police if they donít leave.
Sudan said police want to help people in need. But people with false stories usually leave before police arrive, he said.
"Iím not unsympathetic," he said. "But giving that person $1 only feeds that personís addiction. Weíre not cold, heartless people. If people call us, weíre going to investigate the problem, the need and act appropriately."
The sad thing, residents say, is that a handful of con artists have dissuaded good-hearted people from helping truly needy people.
A man seeking gas money to visit his hospitalized mother was given $20 and served a sandwich, cake and coffee by an older couple who asked to remain anonymous.
The older man, a veteran police volunteer, said he grew suspicious only after the panhandler returned the next night, asking for change for $50 so he could repay him. The homeowner believes that the man was setting him up for a robbery.
"I feel kind of stupid," he said.
To give or not to give Fort Worth police offer these tips about how to respond to door-to-door solicitors:
Post a no-trespassing or no-soliciting sign outside your door.
Never open your door. Check through a peephole or window and talk to the solicitor through a door or window.
Never tell the person that youíre alone.
Call police if the person refuses to leave or to keep him or her from soliciting your neighbors. Be prepared to give details about the person and the personís vehicle.
Know your neighbors and start a system to alert one another.
Inform Citizens on Patrol of the activity so it can alert patrols.
Teach your children why they should never open the door to strangers and how to call police.