Former Panhandler: “I Was Making Money ‘Signing’ But I Wasn’t Doing The Right Things”

Posted at 11:39 PM, Jun 04, 2014
and last updated 2014-06-04 23:39:21-04

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (June 4, 2014) – Grand Rapids City Commissioners were split in a three-to-three vote to limit begging in parts of the city on Tuesday night.

City leaders said they now plan to take the summer to look at the issue carefully before hopefully putting it to another vote in September.

It’s an issue James Speet, a former panhandler is familiar with.   Speet grabbed media attention in 2012 following his arrest for begging on the streets of Kentwood.

Speet said there was an art to panhandling, something he called ‘Signing’.  You would often see him at street corners holding a sign and asking for help.

Now, he’s getting help in a different way and sharing his story hoping to get others to put the sign down for good as well.

Just one month ago James Speet said he left his old life behind, “I had to get away from the vicious cycle I was in Grand Rapids.  And then it was the right people at the right time, like the owners of Camper’s Paradise.”

Camper’s Paradise is a campground in Grand Haven.  For 25 dollars a night Speet could stay there.  He was able to get the attention of the owner, Lesley Densmore.

“Why don’t we see?” Densmore said about giving Speet a job.  “Why don’t we just take a chance?  We all needed a chance at one point to get where we are at.”

Densmore said she knew about Speet’s past.  He used to beg for money, usually holding a sign.  She even saw it herself.

“We didn’t change him, we just gave him an opportunity,” she said.

The opportunity was to work at the campground in Grand Haven in exchange for a place to call home.  His home for now is just a tent with a few belongings inside.

Speet said he also got a job at a local restaurant, Snug Harbor,  where he washes dishes.  He put his sign down for now but he will admit that it’s hard to keep it down.

“I went out the other day and I was going to hold my sign because I didn’t have… just to get a little food,” he said.  “I just didn’t make anything.  I didn’t feel it.”

Speet said he is keeping tabs on the Grand Rapids City Commission as it works to draft an ordinance that could limit panhandling.  An issue that is close to his heart.  With the help of the ACLU Speet won a lawsuit up-holding panhandling as a first amendment right.

Now, he sees things in a different light.

“My whole feelings on the whole thing has changed,” he said.  “I still believe in the constitution and everything.”

“Do you think people should use it more as a stepping stone?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he answers.  “That’s what i did.  When I came out here to Grand Haven I didn’t have a penny in my pocket.  I came out here to get a spot.”

Speet said if he can change, anyone can.

“Whatever situation you are in didn’t work,” he offers as advice.  “That’s why you are where you are at.  So change your situation.  That’s what I had to do.”

Speet now hopes to save enough money between now and winter for a trailer, something to use as a more permanent home.