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A mentally ill panhandler, a sad routine

After her release from jail, Bonnie Nix smokes outside the assisted-living facility for the mentally ill where she lives. It was her seventh panhandling arrest in a year. She has $54 a month to work with.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

After her release from jail, Bonnie Nix smokes outside the assisted-living facility for the mentally ill where she lives. It was her seventh panhandling arrest in a year. She has $54 a month to work with.

ST. PETERSBURG

You've probably seen her, rail thin with misshapen clothing and cheap slippers, wandering back and forth with little regard for traffic on downtown streets.

Her name is Bonnie Nix. She turned 60 on Friday.

Nix panhandles. Last week she was arrested for failing to appear on a warrant for the misdemeanor. It was her fifth begging-related arrest this year and seventh since last September.

The handouts she collects buy "smokes, potato chips, candy'' and, she admits, beer.

Nix isn't homeless. She lives at Carden House, a dreary assisted-living facility for the mentally ill that's housed in a former 1920s hotel at 2349 Central Ave. The Carden House staff knew nothing of last week's arrest until approached by the St. Petersburg Times. Nix had been gone close to 24 hours by then. She returned late Wednesday.

On Thursday morning she sat in the facility's rundown lobby clutching a black cloth bag with some of her treasures: a can of soda, a new, oversized T-shirt dress still in its plastic bag — similar to the one that hung loosely from her frail frame, cigarettes, a bag of Doritos and a packet of M&M's. She'd already had the beer.

Shoulders hunched and offering an occasional broken-toothed smile, Nix said she hits the streets early, by 7 or 8 in the morning. She was barefoot, her toenails daubed with black nail polish. She likes her feet to get air, Nix said, and dismissed an ominous-sounding cough as "smoker's cough.''

She has no idea how long she has been at Carden House. "It's been a while, more than two or three years, I guess,'' she said.

Details of her troubled life come from her stepfather, Robert L. Gaither Sr., 76, a retired minister in Flint, Mich. A grandmother who lived in St. Petersburg died two years ago.

"She once was a pretty girl,'' Gaither said, adding that he thinks a bad breakup with a boyfriend sent her into a spiral. "That seemed to devastate her, and from then on she seemed to sink further and further into a hole.''

Gaither said he believes his stepdaughter never forgave her mother, who died this year, for leaving her with the grandmother — who then lived in Georgia — until she was about 11 or 12.

"She never acclimated herself, never really became a part of the family'' once she got to Michigan, he said. "Her mother tried so very hard, in many ways.''

Nix graduated from high school, he said, but had little academic ability. She wandered from state to state, never married and had at least five children, Gaither said. Nix, though, said she has no children.

Her panhandling began in Michigan. "She would wait till it started raining or the snow was heavy,'' her stepfather said. "The police would pick her up, we'd keep her for a few days and then she would take off.''

Nix eventually came to St. Petersburg and initially lived in an apartment behind her grandmother's home. Gaither said he and his wife visited at least once a year. He spoke of an incident at Carden House about five years ago.

"Her nose was bleeding. It wasn't just a nosebleed. It came as a result of violence. She wouldn't tell me who did it,'' he said. "I was concerned about the facility.''

Carden House administrator Harry Amin said his family bought the ALF about three years ago and that Nix has been there since 2004. He said his staff realized that she was missing around midnight Tuesday. The facility usually waits 12 hours before alerting police of missing residents, he said. On Wednesday morning the staff also called local hospitals, he said.

Nix returned by bus late Wednesday. Marianne Pasha, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, said Nix might have been given a bus pass. She added that while the department has programs to help mentally ill inmates, Nix's brief stays allow no time to assess her needs.

Tim Burns, director of justice and consumer services for Pinellas County, said there is high crossover of mental health problems into the criminal justice system.

"It really is very challenging and creates a revolving door,'' Burns said, adding that the public defender's office does have an innovative and successful jail diversion program for the mentally ill.

Amin, the Carden House administrator, can't understand why Nix is arrested.

"She's a nice lady,'' he said. "These are mentally ill persons. They are like angels. She never harms anybody. If she asks for something and if you don't give her anything, she's fine.''

Nix, though, has a picture gallery of arrests on the Pinellas County sheriff's "Who's in Jail" site for panhandling and failing to appear on subsequent warrants for the crime.

St. Petersburg has ordinances against aggressive panhandling and against begging within 15 feet of ATMs, at sidewalk cafes, on a bus or at city bus stops, on private property, or between dusk and dawn. Last year, the city also banned panhandling around key downtown tourist spots.

Nix uses her panhandling to supplement a monthly allowance of $54 she gets from the ALF. State regulations provide that if an ALF is "the representative payee'' for a resident, then the resident's Social Security, supplemental security income, or optional state supplementation check or checks go directly to the facility. The institution then gives the resident a "personal needs" allowance.

The $54 a month, which is set by Medicaid, has not increased in many years, said April Hill, a board-certified elder law attorney with Hill Law Group in St. Petersburg.

"It's for if you want to eat out or get a perm, a haircut, clothing, cigarettes. All you have to do is smoke a pack a day and it's gone,'' she said.

Nix probably smokes at least that. On Thursday, 24 hours after getting out of jail, she ignored a clarion call of "lunchtime'' and headed outdoors to smoke.

It wasn't a day to head downtown, she said. "I got cigarettes.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or wmoore@sptimes.com.

A mentally ill panhandler, a sad routine 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 4:31am]
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