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Campustown proves profitable for panhandler

CHAMPAIGN '“ David Sankey swallows the last of his coffee with a gulp. "I just came in here for a break,' he says, rising from his seat in a cafe at Daniel and Sixth streets. "I got to get back to work '“ otherwise, I'd be a lazy bum and not a panhandler.'

Just outside, and back on the job, Sankey takes another seat, this one on the sidewalk.
"Spare change?' he asks, his voice only one or two decibels above a whisper. "Spare dollar?'

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Nine times out of ten the answer is a shake of the head or an apologetic "no.'

But there is that one-in-ten, and for that passer-by, Sankey holds up his plastic cup.

"Thank you, sir,' he tells a U of I freshman struggling to pull a buck from his wallet.

"Good luck.'

With his "place of business' at the center of Champaign-Urbana's economic hub, the luck may, in fact, be Sankey's '“ that despite many outward signs to the contrary. While in most U.S. cities the downtown corridor offers panhandlers the greatest income potential, in this college town Campustown attracts most of the activity.

There's a good reason for that change of venue, say police and outreach workers, pointing to the refuted generosity '“ or "gullibility' '“ of 40,000 U of I students.

"I think students, especially those who might be a little drunk, are more likely to give than some others,' says Jennifer Valaed, director of the local Salvation Army homeless shelter. She's unable to peg an exact number to those who live off that charity.

Sankey freely acknowledges the lure of thousands of students, who crowd area sidewalks throughout the day and again at night when the bars discharge them. 

Indeed, the 46-year-old's work schedule reflects the students' busy social calendar, with Sankey taking his post outside campus nightspots on Thursdays and Fridays just as patrons stagger home.

Sankey, a Champaign native, nets anywhere from $75 to $150 for each four days of begging.

"You know, I can get by day to day perfectly fine,' says Shawn Resendiz, the U of I freshman who slipped Sankey that dollar. "But a lot of other people have trouble with that, so I'm just trying to do my best with them.

Resendiz's donation went straight from his hand into the panhandler's cup. Sankey shrinks from physical contact. Still, however it's received, the cash supplements a Social Security Disability Insurance check, he says.

In Illinois the federal monthly SSDI benefit, usually no more than $600, can get bumped up to $900, depending on a recipient's work history. Sankey won't disclose exactly how much he receives '“ outside of what he raises on the street '“ or where his money goes.

"I spend my spare on buying the things I need to get by,' he says. "Today I need $11 to (avoid) paying a late fee for my videos for my PlayStation Portable.'

Valade, who's been working with Champaign homeless for 20 years, questions where the spare change actually goes, pointing to the illicit drug and alcohol use assumed prevalent among street people. It's why she recommends buying a panhandler lunch instead.

The Salvation Army discourages the 50 or more men who call its local shelter home from begging or even hanging out around campus. Sankey, who's been plying his own trade for 20 years, is not one of her residents.

"I have a cubbyhole to live in,' he says, "with an electrical outlet to plug my stuff into.'

Sankey '“ as well known for his PlayStation as the pair of ski googles he wears on top of his head '“ is otherwise mum on where he goes when campus streets get quiet.

He's only slightly more forthcoming with other details about his life, spent almost entirely in Champaign-Urbana.

"I have been under a doctor's care and I have been in an institution,' he says, tugging his scraggly beard in between calls for spare change. "I can't work because of my condition, but the doctors tell me I'm not supposed to tell people what it is.'

Champaign County records do, in fact, point to several court-ordered psychiatric assessments for Sankey as part of a string of arrests between the late 1990s and, most recently, 2007. In all cases, the court eventually found him fit to enter a plea. He's due back in court in May for a hearing on a petition to revoke his probation on charges from the 2007 case.


Most of the charges center on theft and illegal trespass, although it was a 1998 conviction for possessing drug paraphernalia that landed him in jail. Not even that 220-day sentence saw Sankey leave the central Illinois he grew up in '“ he served his time in the Champaign County Correctional Center

Sankey is not willing to talk about that experience or a police record clean of arrests for panhandling. The City of Champaign does not prohibit the kind of low-key begging Sankey and a handful of others on campus restrict themselves to.

"The only thing that we'd deal with,' says Lt. Vernon Frost of the campus police, his comments mirroring those of Champaign City Police Lt. Brad Yohnka, "is what's called aggressive panhandling, where the panhandler doesn't take no for an answer or stays right beside a ATM and begs for money when someone's using it."

Otherwise, asking for change on any public street, day or night, falls within the law, Yohnka says.

Sankey's own experience doesn't necessarily support the assertion.

"I had the police move me from in front of the [university] bookstore on Wright Street three times,' he says, standing at the corner of Daniel and Sixth streets and pointing toward Wright. "They said I was on school property.'

He now stays clear of university property.

Circuit court records show police have stopped Sankey for minor offenses such as riding a bicycle at night without a light and jaywalking.

The attention hasn't kept him off of his favorite Champaign Street, although court records list his last known address as in Urbana.

He has no plans, he says, to leave a community where his father owned and operated a printing business for more than two decades.

"It's a quiet here '“ not like a big city,' Sankey says, putting a Hot Pocket inside one of his weather-beaten work gloves. "I've been here (on Daniel Street) for 20-, 21-, 22-, 23 years.
"I've watched them [U of I students] graduate, go through school, do their four years six or seven times.'

He interrupts himself to ask a passer-by for change.

By Vernon Jones/ University of Illinois

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.