On a Friday afternoon, Martin sits on a concrete curb, slowly pulling away at his cigarette while holding up his cardboard sign, facing the cars stopped beside him that wait for the light to change.
But Martin is not alone. Two Provo police officers stand next to him, watching the panhandler’s every move.
“I’m going to call them stalkers,” Martin said. “They’re weirdos. I guess I’ll go sleep under their cop car ’cause I ain’t got no place to go.”
Martin, originally from Roosevelt, is one of the many panhandlers who exercise their freedom of speech to beg in downtown Provo. But local store owners call them a nuisance that drives away business, and, the Provo Police recently avised residents, many of them panhandle to fund their own addictions.
“Panhandlers do use their money for drugs,” Provo Police Lt. Mathew Siufanua said. “They take turns on the different corners and work in groups to consolidate their money for drugs.”
Most panhandlers in Provo are local, although a few are from Salt Lake City. Provo Police currently have a task force assigned to address the the problem and regularly convict panhandlers on counts of drug possession.
“These panhandlers are opportunists,” said Wayne Parker, Chief Administrative Officer for the Provo Mayor’s office. “I talked to a lady just the other day who saw a panhandler leave their post and hop into a Lexus.”
Kathy Reichert, from Springville, sits next to Martin as she explains how she resorted to panhandling.
“My son quit making payments on the house and then I was in the hospital,” Reichert said. “I’ve been out of the hospital for three months.”
Reichert is currently living at Valley Inn and is unemployed. Sitting comfortably on a park bench with a cigarette in hand and alcohol on her breath, Reichert says she wants to start working again.
“I want to work at Home Depot,” she said. “I’m a lot smarter than most people you know.”
But she and her fellow panhandlers continue to spend their days sitting on Center Street, and local business owners are losing patience.
“This is a legitimate, money-making business,” said Craig Gandolfo, owner of Gandolfo’s Deli near the corner of University Avenue and Center Street. “They’re making $140 a day. For 140 bucks, I could feed 60 people in my restaurant. Believe me, I’ve thought about making my own sign and standing out there beside them.”
According to Gandolfo, several Provo panhandlers make a comfortable middle class income – all of it tax free – by begging.
“This is seriously one of my biggest pet peeves in the whole world,” Gandolfo said. “One day the story is they’re homeless. The next day they’re traveling and needing gas. Then the next, they’re got medical problems. It’s all the same people.”
Both Parker and Siufanua emphasized that those who wish to be charitable and help the needy should give their money to local charities.
“We have a community that is charitable and nonjudgmental,” Parker said. “There are plenty of great organizations who actually help the needy.”
Provo residents can donate money to a number of local charities including the Food and Care Coalition, United Way of Utah County and the Community Action Services and Food Bank.