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As death of woman who helped panhandler gets national attention, Baltimore homeless see decline in generosity

Lillian Reed, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

BALTIMORE -- Justin Morles walked along a traffic median in Baltimore's Otterbein neighborhood Wednesday gripping a cardboard sign that bore a simple request -- he needs help and a job.

However, the homeless man's pleas to motorists on busy Conway Street were met this week increasingly with a click of car door locks.

Since the story of a woman who was fatally stabbed in Baltimore while helping a panhandler made national news this week, Morles and some of Baltimore's other homeless citizens who panhandle in the Inner Harbor, Downtown West and Otterbein neighborhoods say they have seen the number of motorists willing to lower their windows dive.

"It's embarrassing, it's hurtful," Morles said of hearing the car doors lock. "They're acting like I'm not a person."

Harford County resident Jacquelyn Smith, 54, was fatally stabbed about 12:30 a.m. Saturday after giving money to a woman in the rain at Valley and East Chase streets in Johnston Square.

Smith was seated in the front passenger seat of her car and had rolled down her window to give money to a woman carrying what appeared to be a baby and holding a cardboard sign that said "Please Help me feed my Baby." A man then approached the car and tried to grab Smith's wallet. After a struggle, police said, the man took out a knife and stabbed Smith.

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The story made national news this week, prompting an outpouring of support for the Smith family and widespread shock and outrage about violence against a good Samaritan.

Some, however, also pointed to Smith's death as warning to avoid interactions with panhandlers and homeless. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey tweeted about the incident Tuesday, saying she had lowered her window for panhandlers many times but would "think twice" before doing it again.

For some of the homeless people in Baltimore who depend on panhandling, Smith's death has dealt a devastating blow to the generosity they count on from motorists.

Morles tried positioning himself near an active construction site on West Conway Street Wednesday, where workers could be seen from the roadway. The 35-year-old hoped the workers' presence would make drivers feel that it was less risky to roll down their windows for him while they waited for traffic lights to turn green.

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