Curbside solicitor

Curbside solicitor (J.M. Giordano / June 25, 2014)

It's four p.m. on April 22, a beautiful spring day in Baltimore. At the corner of Mount Royal and North avenues, a group of seven people are working in traffic. Dressed in yellow T-shirts, they carry five-gallon buckets with orange tops. When cars stop for the red light, they ask drivers for money.

"We're raising money for a recreation center," one of the young women says as a reporter and photographer approach. "I started yesterday."

The girl probably did start yesterday, but the group—and others that appear to operate much like it—have worked this corner for years. Some neighbors are unhappy about the constant soliciting. They say they are worried about the safety of the solicitors, who have sometimes appeared very young. A group of Bolton Hill residents complained to the police and their city-council members about the activity. They were told nothing could be done.

And maybe nothing can be done. At least nothing simple. A closer look at this perennial summer show in Baltimore brings to the fore First Amendment rights, charity and child-labor laws, and the personal, financial, and criminal backgrounds of the people running the operations. Bottom line: It's complicated. But it's complicated in interesting ways, and in ways you might not expect.

Depending on your general outlook on humanity, you may be surprised to learn that regular panhandlers are not the only souls protected (theoretically, anyway) from state harassment. As a practical matter, so are people collecting money under false pretenses—as many, including these yellow-shirted folks, apparently are. State laws are changing even now to tighten up requirements for charitable soliciting, but enforcement at curbside seems unlikely, at least in Baltimore.

Then again, many charities counted in every way legitimate by the state and its many regulators practice the same alleged sins as the yellow T-shirt crew—paying naive youngsters a pittance to beg on behalf of causes that seldom see more than a tiny fraction of the proceeds. The state may discriminate starkly between those corporations registered as 501(c)(3)s and those not, but on the ground, that demarcation is nowhere near obvious.

Here is how one Bolton Hill resident described the situation in an email: "For the past couple of summers there have been groups of children, some teenagers but many as young as (or younger than) 5, asking for money at the intersection of North Avenue and Mount Royal. The children dart in and out of traffic, at an intersection in which cars are often zooming off of I-83. Many of them are barely taller than the car's engine. Several of us in the neighborhood have been very concerned about the safety of these kids—there is sometimes an adult sitting in the shade ‘supervising.' Other neighbors have observed an adult ‘paying out' the children at the end of a shift. Another neighbor approached the adult and asked about the ‘camp' and was told that it was a leadership camp (but the ‘leading' was learning how to ‘fundraise' in traffic). Some neighbors have called the police, but were told there was nothing the BPD could do."

In March Bolton Hill residents met with City Councilman William Cole (D-11th District) and some police and social-service officials. The social-service people said they could not do anything unless they had a complaint about child abandonment. Police basically said their hands were tied by the American Civil Liberties Union, which makes it its business to protect the rights of panhandlers everywhere.

"It's frankly dangerous," Cole said in April, when first contacted by City Paper. "When the light is green, people come off the ramp at a high rate of speed."

Cole says residents have a legitimate concern about the safety of those kids, but "there is not a whole heck of a lot we can do under existing law."

The problem is that pesky First Amendment. The same fool thing that gives City Paper the right to set all this down also gives you—and anyone, really—the right to stand on the median and beg for cash. Various local anti-panhandling ordinances (including one proposed last year to prohibit median-strip begging) have been shot down because of this Constitution thing.

Cole says this right to beg in the streets extends, practically speaking, to adults using children to beg on their behalf. "Police don't really have the right to say to the kids, ‘where is your parent or guardian?' We went through that angle—to see if there is a child endangerment concern," he says. "The police could pick him up—then where do you take the kid?"

Remember: This is a daytime activity. The renewed curfew ordinance and its proposed "youth connection centers" are not relevant.

Cole says that if a woman sitting under a tree and drinking a soda on the median claims she's operating a "summer camp," then the police are checkmated. Not that he's happy about this.

"If they are purporting to be a nonprofit collecting donations for a nonprofit that doesn't exist—for instance, we hear they are collecting to build a rec center on Reservoir Hill. It doesn't exist! I've asked," Cole says. "But that does not necessarily make it a police issue."

Cole says there are "other areas of law" that might be brought to bear. He suggests the state comptroller's office, adding that he's heard "plenty of rumors that the kids are getting compensated for doing this work. That raises issues of child-labor laws."

And this is true. Or, anyway, it was true, one time, two years ago (and one other time, 70 years ago) in Massachusetts.

In May of 2012, Roderick Pendleton, age 48, pleaded guilty in a state court in Massachusetts to eight counts of child-labor-law violations stemming from an outfit he named (ingeniously!) "The International Teenster Union, Inc."

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General, Pendleton employed six underage kids, leaving them "unattended in the streets of Roxbury, Dorchester and Boston to solicit cash donations for ITU . . . a purported charitable organization to benefit children with HIV, AIDS, and cancer . . . from motorists stopped at traffic lights."