Oklahoma City's homeless rack up tickets for inhabiting city medians
The bulk of citations written for Oklahoma City's controversial panhandling ordinance have been issued to a handful of homeless men panhandling at the same intersection — NE 23 and Santa Fe — with many panhandlers racking up repeated citations.
Out of the 73 tickets Oklahoma City police wrote through Nov. 3 for standing or sitting on a median, 34 were issued at NE 23 and Santa Fe.
An overturned milk crate, acting as a makeshift chair for panhandlers, was set out on the median one recent weekday afternoon.
Wendell Knight, who hangs out at the intersection at NE 23 and Santa Fe under the Interstate 235 overpass, said Oklahoma City Police recently wrote him a ticket for obstructing traffic after he stopped on the median at NE 22 and Santa Fe to say hello to a friend who was panhandling there.
"I think I'm due (in court) tomorrow," Knight said. "I don't think I'm going to show up, but I might."
The median near the I-235 off ramp at NE 23 and Santa Fe is a popular panhandling spot with its rush hour congestion.
Knight said most of his homeless friends can't afford to pay any of the tickets they get for infractions like trespassing on public property or obstructing traffic and just don't bother to show up to court.
"I believe they giving the wrong people tickets — I believe they should be ticketing the people who are giving the money out. They are the ones obstructing traffic," Knight said. "They have money — we don't."
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Oklahoma City enacted the ordinance, which bans standing or sitting in a median, in December 2015, and began enforcing the ban in early 2016. Offenders can be subject to a $100 fine.
Most tickets for violating Oklahoma City's new traffic median ordinance are issued to homeless people who don't show up to court and never pay the fines, an analysis of public records show.
While the ordinance restricts standing or sitting on some traffic medians, critics say the ban targets Oklahoma City's homeless population and is designed to crack down on panhandling.
Fifty-seven of the 73 tickets Oklahoma City police wrote for standing or sitting on a median through Nov. 3 were issued to homeless people, the analysis found.
Some gave their address as the city day shelter to police. One man who received a ticket gave the address of Oklahoma City's detox center as his home. Another gave his address as a vacant fast-food restaurant.
Many of the homeless people issued tickets for standing or sitting on a median owe hundreds or even thousands of dollars in unpaid fees and fines to Oklahoma City, according to city data. Some of the money owed includes bond amounts for people who failed to make municipal court appearances.
The fines are from tickets for infractions ranging from standing or sitting on a median to obstructing traffic and public drunkenness, as well as incarceration fees for stays in the Oklahoma County Detention Center.
Fines from municipal tickets and outstanding warrants are just one of many obstacles the homeless face when trying to find housing, said Dan Straughan, executive director of The Homeless Alliance, which strives to end homelessness in Oklahoma City.
"I can find funding mechanisms to pay for first month's rent, utility deposits, mops and brooms, but no funder pays for back tickets to get cleared," Straughan said. "It can be a barrier. We are not seeing that as one of the big barriers. It doesn't rise to the level of mental illness or addiction, but it's a barrier."
Capt. Paco Balderrama, spokesman for Oklahoma City Police, said the department has not targeted homeless people in its enforcement of the ordinance. However, the department believes it is proving to be an effective deterrent to panhandling on traffic medians.
"That median ordinance was created for the safety of everyone, not just the homeless," Balderrama said. "We do believe that it's working. We believe that it has deterred people, but there are some people who are going to continue to violate the law and get multiple tickets."
One Oklahoma City homeless man, Jeffrey Thomas, 54, has been ticketed at least 11 times for standing or sitting on a median. Ten of the tickets were for standing on the same median at NE 23 and Santa Fe, according to city records.
Attempts to find Thomas were unsuccessful. Another Oklahoma City homeless man who also frequents NE 23 and Santa Fe identified Thomas from a photograph and said he went by the street name "Silverback" because of his distinctive white hair. The Homeless Alliance has no records of Thomas visiting Oklahoma City's day shelter or accessing other services.
While some of the fines Thomas owes were waived at an indigency hearing, he still owes $794 in fines, mostly for tickets for standing or sitting on a median and subsequently failing to appear in court. A warrant has been issued for his arrest, according to the municipal court website.
"Anything helps if you can. God Bless," said one sign Thomas held up to passing motorists, according to one citation.
Another area homeless man, Ronald Watts, 63, has received at least eight tickets for standing or sitting on a median. Watts owes $3,712 in fines and fees to Oklahoma City, mostly in the form of incarceration fees for multiple stays in the county jail dating back to 2010, according to municipal court records.
Watts received a ticket on June 3 for soliciting from the median at NE 23 and Santa Fe, and then was ticketed again for the same offense at the same intersection again the next day.
On June 16, Oklahoma City Police ticketed Watts for standing or sitting on a median at NE 23 and Santa Fe again. Two days later, Watts was ticketed again at the same median, this time holding a sign that said "Hungry, God Bless."
In July, Watts was panhandling on the median at NE 23 and Santa Fe again, carrying a sign that said, "Hungry. Trust God," according to one citation.
Watts tried to flee when he saw a police cruiser coming down the interstate off-ramp, but was still ticketed.
Attempts to contact Watts also were unsuccessful. Watts was once an intermittent visitor at the Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance's day shelter, but has not been seen there since August.
Oklahoma City's municipal court system is trying to do more to help the city's homeless population deal with fines from outstanding tickets and warrants, said Cindy Richard, deputy municipal counselor for Oklahoma City.
"A lot of the problems we have with homeless persons is just getting them in court," Richard said.
Because many homeless lack a permanent mailing address, phone number or access to email, it's hard to contact them to remind them of payments or court dates.
Oklahoma City is moving to what is called a "marshal-assist" system to help work with the homeless, Richard said.
The idea is to keep the homeless out of jail for unpaid fines and missed court dates.
"If police officers find you and you have warrants out, what they will do is call the city marshal," she said. The marshal will take the person to the courthouse where they can either see a judge immediately or have an indigency hearing scheduled.
Oklahoma City's municipal court system also has expanded its indigency dockets, where people can have their fines suspended, arrange a payment plan, or have the fees waived if they can prove an inability to pay, said LaShawn Thompson, municipal courts administrator.
"It is not just for standing in the median, it's any type of citation," Thompson said. "If you don't have the ability to pay, you can request an indigency hearing."
The city also is working on a legislative proposal to allow people who are unable to pay their tickets to opt for community service, Richard said.
Ralph Harris, who said he has been panhandling in Oklahoma City for years, said he once owed as much as $1,300 in municipal fines. Harris said he stays off the medians, but has been ticketed for obstructing traffic and other offenses. A municipal judge waived all of his fines after a stay in the county jail, he said.
Standing in front of the Walgreens at NW 23 and Classen Boulevard one recent afternoon, Harris wore a camouflage shirt and carried camouflage backpack with an American flag pinned to it — he claims to be a former Navy SEAL.
"I paid a whole bunch of the tickets," Harris said. "Sometimes you make a thousand a month out here and a few tickets is nothing."
Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›