GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) – People in cars who pass just a few feet away tend to divert their eyes from the man toiling on the busy street corner.
But for some, the friendly 53-year-old with a compact frame, brown hair slicked back into a ponytail and deeply tanned, tattooed skin conjures up images of a sort of modern-day Jesus. The down-on-his-luck former iron worker who creates a variety of crosses from scrap pieces of juniper employs a work ethic seemingly absent from the legions of transients posted at intersections flying signs around the Grand Valley.
Sure, Wendell Faircloth is homeless. But the lifestyle doesn’t define him.
“Panhandlers hate me,” he said from his favorite city corner for the past year, where Rimrock Avenue yields to Lowe’s and Chick-fil-A. “They say you’re messing things up with those blankety-blank crosses.”
On the ground around him were the contents of his workshop, a chisel, a battery-operated drill, several cans of lacquer and his bike trailer lashed to the stop sign with wooden crosses lined up neatly inside. Some crosses were adorned with a heart; others were attached to a wooden base surrounded by pebbles. On a sign, Faircloth asks for donations of $10 to $30 over a tagline that reads, “God Bless You.”
To be certain, Faircloth’s presence elicits a range of emotions. The professed Southern Baptist who claims he is “very religious” has endeared himself to some passers-by. At least two Facebook pages are dedicated to his plight and a local filmmaker is creating a documentary about him. Some nearby business owners, including Chick-fil-A, aren’t entirely opposed to his presence and have their employees help him out in small ways.
Faircloth, who has been cited for panhandling and trespassing several times by the city, recently reduced his profile on that corner, taking down a 9-foot wooden cross and dismantling a makeshift shack he had created for selling his wares.
Chick-fil-A owner Kevin Brock said he is “somewhat torn” by Faircloth’s presence across the street from the restaurant. Brock said he doesn’t want Faircloth to get injured in a traffic accident. Still, the restaurant owner said he has instructed his employees to allow Faircloth to use the business phone on a limited basis and not to keep him from using the bathrooms. It might be a different story, Brock said, if Faircloth set up shop directly on Chick-fil-A’s corner or started selling chicken sandwiches.
“I think he’s a good guy,” he said. “It’s somewhat of a fit for us because he makes crosses. I don’t want to crush the entrepreneurial spirit of anybody.”
Panhandling is a perennial issue in Grand Junction, one that generates a stream of resident complaints, according to the Grand Junction Police Department.
Faircloth recently received citations for trespassing and violating a public right of way. Faircloth said police officers told him he needed to obtain a vendor’s license to sell items.
Last year, when Faircloth set up his makeshift business near Walmart, the company complained, he was cited and he moved down the road.
Officials at Lowe’s have not wanted Faircloth to be cited, but the property owner of the Rimrock Marketplace, THF Realty did, and so Faircloth was cited, the Police Department said.
In general, said spokeswoman Kate Porras of the Grand Junction Police Department, the number of panhandlers in the community fluctuates, and it’s difficult to tell if there are more or fewer lately.
Officers’ only tools to combat the practice: Continue to write citations.
To more directly address the issue, officers with the Homeless Outreach Team recently helped transfer two of the area’s most visible panhandlers to a Salvation Army substance abuse treatment center in Denver, Porras said.
City officials banned people from loitering in medians, but panhandling itself is not outlawed because doing so bumps up against First Amendment rights of free speech.
An abundance of panhandlers in Grand Junction leaves a bad taste in visitors’ mouth, said Stephen Fullerton. Fullerton’s letter to the editor about a persistent presence of panhandlers in Grand Junction, and more specifically about Faircloth’s bootleg roadside business, appeared in this newspaper June 9.
“I’m not trying to be mean-hearted, but this doesn’t reflect well on the city,” Fullerton said by phone last week. “I appreciate this guy’s initiative that he’s working instead of being there begging, but it’s more of an example of what’s not being addressed.”
As a small-business owner, Fullerton said he is required to obtain all the necessary permits and pay rent on a storefront.
“To me, clearly, whatever the city and county are doing is not working,” he said.
Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said city officials have planned to review their protocols in dealing with panhandlers. A media campaign launched shortly before Camper took the department’s helm resulted in a series of street signs placed on corners reading, “Giving spare change won’t make a change.”
The results have been laughable as transients often stand directly beneath signs, asking for handouts.
“For as many complaints that I get, I don’t know how many times I’m driving behind somebody and they’re handing out money,” Camper said. “If people would stop making it profitable, it would go away. There’s a simple supply and demand.”
Maybe it’s partly because Faircloth is approachable and well-spoken that people take to him.
During a one-hour streetside interview last week, the driver of a Grand Valley Transit bus shared a wave with him and a school-aged boy lowered a car window to give him a dollar. A fit 20-something woman ran across the street and produced a $10 bill asking what kind of cross she could buy. Faircloth sold her one to fit in a pocket and then reconsidered, pressing a second one into her hand to give to a friend.
If he had his way, Faircloth would hire 200 people and make enough crosses to give to each member of the military to carry with them. He keeps his head down whittling wood for crosses to avoid the occasional irate driver and believes he’s on good enough terms with local police officers.
“I’ve got to look at these people every day. This is my town, too,” he said. “I don’t get five or 10 dollars and run to the liquor store. I don’t fit in with the homeless.”
He also doesn’t consider his work panhandling.
“Flying a sign is unheard of where I come from,” he said of growing up in Alabama and most recently being from southeast Texas. “I don’t even know where the door to the jailhouse is. If I feel like I’m out of line or stepping on someone’s toes, I move on.”
As a younger man almost three decades ago, Faircloth was a union blacksmith. He also worked building wind tunnels to test jet engines for the U.S. Air Force in Texas, he said. He’s been married five times and has three children, though he didn’t seem to want to elaborate. Faircloth said when he came to Grand Junction two years ago, he had a job with Western Slope Iron & Supply, but then was laid off. He considered renting a room in a house, but found the rate of $400 to $500 a month to be too costly, so he camps by the Colorado River.
Faircloth is somewhat the poster child for Kathie Fingerson’s Warming Hands project, in which she helps outfit the less fortunate with gloves during frigid winter months. Faircloth suffered frostbite on two of his fingers on his left hand this winter and nearly had to have the digits amputated. They still are painful to the touch.
Fingerson said she often thinks of the song lyric, “What if God was one of us?” when she sees Faircloth on the corner making crosses.
Recently, Faircloth was on the corner with an IV in his arm to combat a leg infection, but still he was out there working, Fingerson said.
“So many times you see people standing there, but he wants to trade you something of value for your money,” she said. “No matter how far down on your luck you are, if you’re still willing to say you’ll work for that dollar . it’s very special. Wendell is totally my inspiration.”
- By AMY HAMILTON, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)