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Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Mishawaka, Osceola, Elkhart, Plymouth, etc.

Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby Happy Mom » Sun Dec 05, 2010 6:42 pm

Streetcorner panhandlers still struggle with life
Two are in jail; some have disappeared; others have taken their place.


WHERE ARE THEY NOW?


By MARY KATE MALONE and DAVE STEPHENS
Tribune Staff Writers


St. Joseph Superior Judge John Marnocha glances through the pages before him and then at the jumpsuit-clad man standing in front of his bench.

Steven Connors, 43, knows he is in trouble, but he can't imagine how much. A month earlier, a jury found him guilty of setting his Osceola home on fire, a claim that Connors denied.

Now it's October, and it's up to Marnocha to determine the appropriate sentence. Connors' criminal history, which includes a prison sentence for burglary, is against him.

The judge tells Connors that he thinks 14 years is an appropriate sentence, given his history.


Connors balks.

He hasn't been in trouble in years, he says, not since the birth of his daughters, now 2 and 4. He admits to having substance abuse issues, but he asks the judge to consider probation.

"Let me have another chance," he pleads with a nervous voice that clings with desperation.

Marnocha is not swayed by Connors' appeal. In a businesslike manner, the judge explains that the state's sentencing guidelines, along with Connors' criminal past, all point him toward an extended sentence.


After less than five minutes of discussion, the judge wishes Connors good luck and moves on to the next case on his docket.

Connors, handcuffed, is led from the courtroom. As he leaves, he locks eyes with a woman quietly sitting in the back.
edit

Nearly a year ago, The Tribune published a story about panhandlers in South Bend, men and women who said they were so broke, so desperate, that they took to the streets to beg for a living.

A year later, we're still struggling. The unemployment rate in Michiana remains above 10 percent. Major employers — like Bosch, in South Bend, and National Standard, in Niles — have recently announced more layoffs.

But still, there's optimism, even if it's cautious. Economists now say the recession ended in 2009 and that the economy is growing. General Motors, once in bankruptcy, is repaying its bailout money.

In that spirit of optimism, The Tribune set out to find the people featured last year, to see where life had taken them.

Of the six people featured in last year's story, The Tribune was able to find three a year later. Their stories reflect that life is much more than just economics, but also about choices and relationships and, sometimes, the things we cannot escape.

Last year, as they stood on street corners and looked longingly into traffic, they said life could not sink much lower.

Apparently, they were wrong.

'I'll never forget'

Teresa Connors sits in a single-wide trailer at a Mishawaka mobile home park, worrying. Sparsely furnished with a secondhand sofa, a coffee table from her mother and a decade-old television, she calls it home.

She has no work income, and two daughters, ages 2 and 4.

Steven Connors, her husband, is in the county jail, still waiting placement in a state prison where he'll remain, even with good behavior, until at least 2017.

A year ago, Teresa could be found standing at the corner of Brick and Gumwood roads, holding a sign that begged passing drivers for money. Sometimes her daughter, then 3, would join her. Steven, with his own sign, would beg nearby.

But now, she said, no level of desperation will move her to hold that sign again and feel the stares of passing drivers.

"It's too embarrassing," Teresa said.

Last fall, Teresa and Steven Connors spent hours at the corner of Brick and Gumwood, sometimes collecting as much as $700 in a single day.

At the time, they were living in Elkhart. Steven was out of a job, and so was Teresa. They said they had reached rock bottom, and they needed the money for food and diapers.

"I'm standing out here for my kids," she said last year, sign in her hand. "Kids come first. Pride comes last."

In December, when a police officer threatened to arrest her if she did not get a permit, Connors said she decided to never return to her corner.

But she remembers the tattered sign well.

"It said, 'FAMILY IN NEED. ANYTHING HELPS. GOD BLESS,'" Connors recalled.

The words on the sign are still true. Teresa and her family are, once again, in need.
edit
Wayne Hepler, sitting in a wheelchair, is pushed into the St. Joseph County Jail's visitor's area and peers through the glass at the reporter on the other side of the window.

"Do you remember me?" the reporter asks through a phone bolted to the wall.

"Yeah," Hepler replies slowly. "I remember you."

It was just more than a year ago that Hepler stood beside Indiana 933, near Darden Road, holding a cardboard sign that silently begged for money.

With a flowing white beard, layers of dirty clothes and the ever-present wheelchair, Hepler has been a recurring presence on South Bend's street corners for years.

edit

Since Sept. 24, he has called the county jail home, since an encounter with a South Bend police officer who told him to leave the corner of Michigan and Ireland roads, after police received a call about a man in a wheelchair passed out at the intersection.

South Bend officer Kelly Hibbs, in a police report, said he checked on Hepler, found him to be OK and asked the man to move along.

Thirty minutes later, Hibbs wrote, he returned and saw Hepler continuing to panhandle.

Hibbs ran Hepler's record. Hepler was wanted for violating his parole, a punishment he received after shoplifting three bottles of liquor from Walmart in March.

Hibbs told Hepler he was going to jail, to be held on the minor warrant. Then, police say, Hepler snapped.

"I transported Wayne to the St. Joseph County Jail ... Wayne's demeanor dramatically changed," Hibbs wrote in his report.

"Wayne began calling me a (expletive) and asked if I was happy that I arrested him. ... Hepler stated that he was going to see me again and that he would shoot me ... stated that he was a Hells Angel for 27 years ... his fellow Hells Angels were going to take care of me."

Hepler's outburst, prosecutors later determined, resulted in intimidation, a Class D felony.
edit

Connors, sitting in her rented mobile home, recites her monthly expenses to the penny, like her $36.16 natural gas bill from last month, paid three days late.

She says she's relying on her mother to pay for basic expenses and cover her bills until she can find a job.
edit

At the time, Steven had a construction job, and the family seemed to be getting back on their feet.

But Steven returned to the bottle soon after, Teresa said, and lost his job. In early July, she moved out of the home with the girls and told Steven she would file for divorce.

Days later, on July 9, their house went up in flames, destroying nearly all of the family's possessions, including toys, photographs and clothing.

Prosecutors charged Steven Connors with arson. Neighbors said they saw him walking from the house minutes before seeing flames shoot out of a rear bedroom about 8:45 a.m.


Steven Connors pleaded not guilty, and the case went to trial. Teresa, who originally believed Steven did it, now believes he is innocent. But a jury felt otherwise, and he was convicted.

edit

Teresa took what she could salvage from the partially melted pale blue house and found the cheapest, safest place she could: a trailer at the end of a quiet street in Mishawaka.
edit

At least 10 times in the past decade, police have arrested him for public intoxication, including an arrest last January.


edit

Two weeks after his January arrest, police say Hepler parked his wheelchair, walked into the Ireland Road Walmart, and stuffed three bottles of vodka into his coat.

Police caught up with him outside, where Hepler attempted to hide the bottles by sitting on them.

edit In September, Hepler had his run-in with officer Hibbs.

Today, Hepler is sober, well fed and clean. Although he admits to not liking the jail very much, he's in no hurry to leave.

edit

"I'm not pleading guilty to no felony," Hepler said.

Whenever he gets out, Hepler said, he plans to quit drinking.
edit

Like a year earlier, when he said he was waiting for a $200,000 government disability check, there's no way to know whether his stories are true, or whether he even believes them himself.


For now, his street corner panhandling has landed him exactly what he wanted: food to eat and a place to sleep.

For Thanksgiving, Hepler said, the inmates hoped for ice cream.

'Things have to get better'

Three other people interviewed for last year's story could not be reached for interviews this fall.

One man, who panhandled at the corner of Ironwood and Lincoln Way, is reportedly still signing and has been spotted recently continuing to beg, even after county police arrested him for driving under the influence in the spring. But efforts to interview him were not successful.


The other two men could not be found.

It's possible they are happy endings to this story, men who faced degradation but have risen from the street corners to gainful employment and financial security.

But even if that's so, others have taken their place.

Earlier this month, a man named Jay stood along Ironwood and held out a cardboard sign asking for work, money, anything.

Jay said he didn't want his last name published because he has a 12-year-old son who doesn't know his father has taken to panhandling.

"It's awful," Jay said, but after filling out job applications in the mornings, it's the only thing he can think to do in the afternoons. "People look at you like you're doing drugs, like you're worthless."

Jay says he lost his job as a tree trimmer in October and sold his car to pay November's rent. With no way to pay December's rent, he knew time was growing short.

"Things have to get better," Jay says, before repeating it, like a mantra.

"Things have to get better."

Staff writer Mary Kate Malone:
mmalone@sbtinfo.com
574-235-6337

Staff writer Dave Stephens:
dstephens@sbtinfo.com
574-235-6209
http://www.southbendtribune.com/article ... /1011/News
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby Happy Mom » Sun Dec 05, 2010 8:16 pm

Last fall, Teresa and Steven Connors spent hours at the corner of Brick and Gumwood, sometimes collecting as much as $700 in a single day.


Y'all will be seeing me out on that corner soon!!!! :shock: :o
Who gives money to these people? Give to the legitimate organizations and let those in need go there. :roll:
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby bob_rx2000 » Sun Dec 05, 2010 8:31 pm

Hmmm... some quick mental gymnastics... If you're collecting $700 a day panhandling at the street corner, that is about $175k a year if you panhandle 5 days a week for 50 weeks. At that income level I have to assume you'll fly to Hawaii or some other garden vacation spot for two weeks...
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby Ben A. Around » Sun Dec 05, 2010 8:59 pm

Wayne Hepler is vulgar and nasty when he is drunk and when he is sober. I have seen him panhandling on the corner of Ireland and S. Michigan and a friend of mine saw him out by UP mall a couple of days later. He pulls the "I'm a disabled vet card" to gain sympathy.
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby bdcbbq » Sun Dec 05, 2010 9:48 pm

bob_rx2000 wrote:Hmmm... some quick mental gymnastics... If you're collecting $700 a day panhandling at the street corner, that is about $175k a year if you panhandle 5 days a week for 50 weeks. At that income level I have to assume you'll fly to Hawaii or some other garden vacation spot for two weeks...


Tax free too!
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby Happy Mom » Mon Dec 06, 2010 7:01 am

Ben A. Around wrote:Wayne Hepler is vulgar and nasty when he is drunk and when he is sober. I have seen him panhandling on the corner of Ireland and S. Michigan and a friend of mine saw him out by UP mall a couple of days later. He pulls the "I'm a disabled vet card" to gain sympathy.

Ben, not that I'm giving anything to these people on the street corners but, if you know of any others that you know are scamming or frauds, would you post it for us on the forum?
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby bdcbbq » Mon Dec 06, 2010 9:00 am

I posted my above comment on my Droid so it was rather brief.

I would like to point out that while she "earned/conned" $700 one day I'm sure her average was probably less. I also suspect that she wasn't out there trying to make a living as most of us would define it. She more than likely begged enough to survive and blew it on Twinkies and other junk foods for the children.

I never give them money.
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby Informed Citizen » Mon Dec 06, 2010 9:48 am

The girl at Cleveland/Grape was hot.
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby Lincoln » Tue Dec 07, 2010 3:09 pm

I always got a kick out of the guy with dog standing at the entrance to Walmart on Portage. Only saw him there a couple times, but what do you think that dog was thinking? "Man, this is the LONGEST walk ever!" Seriously though, it is illegal to panhandle, especially in the street. I especially hate it when you see the young black men dressed in suits and orange vests walking up to cars at stop lights with their buckets asking for change. Ever notice they don't have any "specific" fund they are raising money for??? Even the firefighters that stand out there sometimes having folks throw money in their boots...WTF?! They should know better than to endanger lives by distracting drivers at busy intersections. Beg for money someplace where you won't cause an accident!
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Re: Update on Area Street Panhandlers

Postby Ben A. Around » Tue Dec 07, 2010 4:48 pm

The Tribune can include in the next update that Wayne Hepler has been honing his "hooch" making skills while being locked up. If he can make it himself then there is no excuse for him to be out panhandling.

(Maybe some of the LEO's out there can remember when some of the frequent fliers (Bill Joachim, Roman Pyclik, for example) were sent to the "farm" down state for the winter to get them off of the streets.)
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