FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – They’re spotted on busy street corners around Fort Wayne. Their attention-grabbing cardboard signs and stories may tug at the hearts of many across the city. But while some question if this is a legitimate person in need, others wonder if it’s someone who just wants a hand-out.
Panhandling is definitely on the increase around Fort Wayne. In a two-month investigation, 15 Finds Out’s Adam Widener and photojournalist Ross Kinsey went undercover looking for the full story on who’s behind the sign. They discovered a community of panhandlers who not only talk to one another, but are using donations in a way those who give may not have expected.
15 Finds Out began investigating Fort Wayne panhandlers at the end of November. With an undercover camera nearby, Widener spoke with three different panhandlers at random.
Then the undercover crew waited to see where each one went. 15 Finds Out first met Derek outside a shopping center near Dupont and Coldwater Roads. He told Widener his initial story.
“I’m trying to keep a roof over my head,” Derek said. “I have a little black Pomeranian and I have my son I get on weekends so I have to have someplace for him to come to.”
After waiting a couple hours, Derek was spotted taking a smoke break. He went in and out of a nearby gas station, then back to his post.
Inside the gas station, a store clerk gave his thoughts this panhandler.
“He comes in a buys cigarettes every once and a while and uses the restroom. He’s always got a wad of bills in both pockets,” said employee Thomas Bill. “I work for my money. I think everybody should.”
After about five hours panhandling, Derek hopped on a bus. He made a brief stop at the mall, then eventually ended up walking down Wells Street where 15 Finds Out confronted him.
Widener: “There might be people that say, ‘Why do you stand out there instead of looking for a job?’ How would you answer that?”
Derek: How would I live if I’m not out there doing that [panhandling]. I do go out and look for a job. I do look, but I can’t be out there every day all day looking for a job. How am I going to live?”
Derek said he has a hard time finding a job because he has some felony’s in his criminal record.
When asked if he uses the money people give him to buy cigarettes, Derek admitted that he might buy a pack every other day.
“But I’m not out here spending all my money on stupid stuff,” Derek said. “I mean none of it’s really a lie.”
Derek said he made about $48 panhandling that day.
Next up, 15 Finds Out met Tim Sharp near Lima and Washington Center Roads. His sign said “Homeless.” Sharp said he recently lost his job at an area factory, and would be heading to a local motel when he got enough money to stay there.
“I lost my unemployment, lost my place to live, and now I don’t know where I’m going,” Sharp said.
Like Derek, Sharp took a smoke break every couple hours. After getting donations in the frigid January weather for about five hours, Sharp hopped a bus.
15 Finds Out followed that bus down to Wells Street and talked to Sharp when it appeared he was heading into a vacant building.
“Actually I’m going to go down the street down here and go to this one guy’s house,” Sharp said. “I can’t stay there. I’m just going to go down there and waste a little bit of time. I don’t know. It’s not fun.”
Although it’s unclear where Sharp actually went, he admitted to using donations to buy cigarettes. Sharp said he made about $50 panhandling that day.
15 Finds Out spotted the final panhandler, Giuseppe Paolo, in a couple different locations across Fort Wayne. After losing him at a shopping center near Coldwater and Washington Center, he was spotted a week later at a shopping center off Maysville Road.
Paolo’s sign said he’s disabled and 15 Finds Out saw him limping. He said he used to build amusement park rides and even said he built the carousel in Glenbrook Square Mall by himself. But Paolo told both Widener and Kinsey the same path to panhandling on two different occasions.
“About 10 years ago I fell 63 feet off a ferris wheel and it completely messed my back up,” Paolo said. “Because of it, I have three slip discs, two herniated discs, and a deteriorating spine. I’m not allowed to lift more than 10 pounds at a time.”
Like the others, Paolo smokes. 15 Finds Out watched him purchase cigarettes near his panhandling location.
But what Paolo did next was shocking. He walked five miles from Maysville Road to New Haven with no limp. After spending more than an hour in a library in New Haven, he eventually walked to a bus stop near the New Haven Kroger. Paolo hopped a bus and headed south of downtown, where 15 Finds Out confronted him.
Widener: “We saw you buying cigarettes with the money people gave you. How do you respond to
Paolo: “I don’t buy cigarettes with money people give me. I do little odd jobs, brake changes, oil changes, to get money for my habits.”
Widener: “You said you can’t lift more than 10 pounds because of your spine. You’re not supposed to, but you have that backpack on your back.”
Paolo: “The backpack is on my shoulders. I’m not actually lifting it. And it doesn’t weigh very much.”
During the conversation, Paolo revealed a community of panhandlers.
“This summer there were like 40 or 50 new people that came out,” Paolo said. “I’ve got certain spots that I’ve been doing it for a year. I consider it my spots.”
Paolo then unveiled full stories behind panhandlers he has seen take advantage of folks in Fort Wayne.
“There’s women out there that do it, they’ll say they’re pregnant and they’re not pregnant. They’ll say they’re homeless and they’re not homeless,” Paolo said. “There are people that say they’re vets that aren’t really vets. And that’s all for them to get more money.”
Paolo continued, “I know there’s a kid that goes to the Coldwater Walmart a lot. All he does with the money is buy Spice. I actually saw one woman get out of a BMW and try to go sit down at Coldwater. I ran her off.”
Paolo said in his experience, only about five percent of panhandlers are legitimate. When asked how people are supposed to tell the difference, Paolo had this message to folks in Fort Wayne:
“If you guys think we’re scamming, think we’re scamming. Me, I could give a s*** less, because I will always survive.”
Paolo said he made $45 panhandling that day.
Though donations may be buying cigarettes and there are reports of panhandlers getting into nice vehicles, it’s not like any of the three panhandlers 15 Finds Out followed left in a nice car or went to a fancy home.
Still, donations may not be going where the giver thinks, when giving to the person behind the sign.
Tune in Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. as 15 Finds Out continues its three-part investigative series “Who’s Behind the Sign.” Tuesday, hear opinions on the best way to respond when encountering a panhandler in Fort Wayne.