SPRING HILL –
Heather Hasenstaub feels sharp pain each day.
She cannot walk without a cane. She recently suffered burn injuries on her right arm and leg. Three of her top teeth were broken during a fall. She was trying to escape a burning house.
Doctors advised her not to be on her feet for more than 15 minutes at a time.
She stands on street corners for up to five hours straight. Her house was gutted due to the fire, and she is not receiving any government aid in spite of her physical difficulties, she said.
It is either beg for money or go hungry.
The physical pain is one thing. Her self-esteem hurts more.
“This is humiliating,” Hasenstaub said as she stared blankly toward Shady Hills Road. “When I was better off, I used to see people with these signs and automatically assume they were hustling.”
Solicitation along medians, streets and highways is illegal in Hernando County. The statute is meant to “prevent dangers to persons and property, to prevent delays and to avoid interference with the traffic flow,” the law states.
Cities across the country are looking to crack down on panhandling, including High Point, N.C., Spokane, Wash., and Des Moines, Iowa.
Sheriff’s deputies have told Hasenstaub, 33, and her family to move elsewhere. They stand on the Pasco County side of the road and have been seen there for several weeks.
Most motorists stop at the traffic light and anxiously look ahead. They pretend they don’t see Hasenstaub, or her fiancée and 17-year-old daughter.
Some give cash and coins, but it seems most people who acknowledge them are not feeling as charitable.
Hasenstaub and her daughter, Tiffany Heitz, 17, will see obscene gestures or hear screams and swearing.
“I’ve seen people I’ve known before and they’re laughing at me,” said Heitz. “It’s an eye-opener. You have no idea how hard it is.”
Her body aches every day. She is often joined by her boyfriend. They will either stay at a friend’s house or sleep in a two-door Chevrolet Monte Carlo along with her mother and fiancé. It is difficult for four people to sleep in a small-sized sedan, she said.
Hasenstaub said their home was damaged by fire several months ago, but she couldn’t recall the exact date. Neither could her fiancé. But that’s not how they lost their home.
The concrete walls were salvaged, they said, but the floor, ceiling and interior required a lot of repair. They didn’t have insurance, so they tried to live in their scorched home amidst the smell of burned wood and ashes.
The house, which is located in Gulf Highlands in Port Richey, eventually was foreclosed.
Whenever Hasenstaub and her daughter see a school bus heading toward them along County Line Road, they will turn around and hide in the bushes, she said.
The high school students are the worst hecklers.
One day, Hasenstaub was struck in the forehead by a quarter. The person who threw it yelled, “Get a job!”
“My feelings were hurt more than anything,” she said.
Less than five miles away from where Hasenstaub and her family stood Wednesday morning was another panhandler.
Jim Hughes, 52, was at the corner of Barclay Avenue and Spring Hill Drive. He was looking for money and a ride to Port Charlotte. But first, he wanted to get a drink and find someone willing to drive him to U.S. 41.
He has a post office box in Port Charlotte, he said. He also likes the food served by the homeless shelter there, not to mention the showering facilities he can use along the way in Sarasota.
It was mid-morning and he already smelled of alcohol. The money he collected that day – about $12 – was going to be spent on booze at the nearby 7-Eleven. He admitted it.
“I want to find work,” he said when asked what he ultimately wants. “I want to get off the street.”
He pulled a cigarette from a pack of Pall Malls he was given earlier that day.
Hughes wore a red and white baseball cap, blue jeans, black tennis shoes, a blue T-shirt and a leather jacket. The clothes looked relatively new.
The rest of him looked ragged. He had not showered in more than two weeks and he had dirt under his fingernails. His brown and gray beard extended to his breast bone.
Hughes spent the previous night in jail. He was arrested in Spring Hill for public drunkenness, he said.
“The nurse told me I stunk,” he said. “I told her, ‘You walk 25 or 35 miles a day for two weeks and see if you stink.'”
Hughes was standing on the median across from Advanced Auto Parts. He crossed the street and sat down on the curb along the parking lot.
He clutched a sign that read, “On the road. I need help. God bless you.” It also contained a peace sign.
At that moment, Mary Beers, of Spring Hill, pulled over in her Chevrolet sport utility vehicle and gave Hughes a $5 bill.
He kissed her hand twice.
“Get something to eat and buy a lottery ticket – a scratch off or something,” Beers told him. “You might get lucky.”
“I just got lucky,” he said.
Another woman pulled up a minute later and gave him two more dollars. She wished him a Merry Christmas.
Hughes said he used to be a machine operator for a furniture chain while he lived in North Carolina.
During the last 10 years, he has been living in various places across the country – mostly in the South. He lives off what people give him. He spends most of it on liquor and beer, he said.
“I don’t have any choice,” when asked why he solicits along street corners. “I have no money.”
Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.