AUBURN — Moments after John Stevens held up his cardboard sign at Wal-Mart on Thursday, asking for donations because he lost everything in a house fire, the insults began.
"I know all about you pedophiles," one man shouted.
Another threw four pennies at Stevens, saying, "That's all you're worth."
Another driver, calling Stevens over to his car window with the promise of a dollar, waited until Stevens was inches away and then spat at him before driving off.
And another, pulling up in a late-model pickup, rolled down his window and said, "A couple of weeks ago I gave you money for food to eat." Stevens asked if the driver wanted his money back, and the driver said no. "I just want you gone."
Before Thursday, people stopped at the light would roll down their windows and talk with Stevens, he said, wishing him good luck and, many times, offering him money. During a half-hour at the same spot Thursday afternoon, there were no offers of good wishes. Only gestures of anger and suggestions that he leave town.
"The article in the paper didn't do anything for me," Stevens, 43, said of
the Sun Journal's profile of him and his panhandling efforts at the
Wal-Mart entrance on Mount Auburn Avenue, published Thursday.
Stevens and his wife were burned out of their apartment on Chapel Street in Augusta in March, and Stevens aggravated an existing back condition when he jumped out of a second-story window to escape the flames. He started panhandling in Augusta because he couldn't find work, and has been in Auburn panhandling for the past five weeks.
The Sun Journal's story about him listed a summary of his criminal background, including a number of felony convictions and a 1997 conviction for unlawful sexual contact. Stevens must register on the Sex Offender Registry for life.
"I'm no predator," Stevens said Thursday, agitated that people would think he might hurt children. He defended his sex-offender status, saying he had been a victim of circumstance, pleading guilty to a charge on the advice of his attorney and then subjected to the shifting law that expanded the registry to include older sex convictions.
"People are always judging people," he said, adding that there's no getting away from the cloud of being a sex offender.
Stevens said he didn't think people needed to know about his criminal background to be able to help him. He was angry that the newspaper included his background, and had wanted the story to be limited to the reason he was homeless.
"Hard knocks everywhere I turn. Hard knocks. Hard knocks," he said, fighting back tears.
Stevens, who had worked as a mason and a carpenter years ago, injured his back in a car accident in 2000 and later tried to work jobs doing light janitorial work. But, "swinging the broom," he said, "I couldn't do it."
He has applied for disability insurance, but said he's been waiting more than a year for approval. He said he's also approached the city of Augusta for General Assistance and various social services for help. He has found no help for a fire victim in Maine, especially for one who doesn't have extended family support, he said. As soon as people learn of his felony convictions, the offers of help stop.
"I'm at my wit's end," Stevens said. "I'm at my lowest point."
He said he had been asked to leave shopping centers in Augusta, Waterville and Brunswick, and that Auburn was the only place he could panhandle without being run off by police.
On Thursday, he set up his sign on Wal-Mart property between the store and the Burger King restaurant.
Store Manager Dale Brann, responding to complaints from customers, asked him to move along to the Mount Auburn entrance. Brann said that he had regularly received complaints about Stevens' presence, but on Thursday the complaints escalated after customers had learned of Stevens' criminal record.
According to Deputy Chief Jason Moen of the Auburn Police Department, the city doesn't have a local ordinance that prohibits panhandling, and Stevens' presence on Mount Auburn Avenue hadn't presented traffic problems.
Police had checked on Stevens before, Moen said, and he wasn't violating any state law by asking people for help. If Wal-Mart were to object to Stevens' presence, though, store officials could tell him to leave.
"Auburn was the only place I could go where cops wouldn't bother me or harass me because I'm a sex offender," Stevens said. "I have no idea what I'm going to do now. No idea."
He had been able to save a couple of hundred dollars from the donations collected in Auburn, Stevens said, because he and his wife lived in their truck. But it was too cold on rainy nights, so they used that money to stay in a hotel in Augusta. And, he said, they had to eat. He has no savings.
Stevens said his wife of five years doesn't like what he's doing. He had hoped that people might be more charitable Thursday, but after a half-hour he decided he wasn't welcome.
At one point, a car with three young men stopped at the light and yelled at him. Stevens yelled back, and the driver opened his door and got out. Stevens invited the man to hit him. "Look, the media's right there."
The man got back in his car and drove off.
Stevens said that in the five weeks he'd been in Auburn, he'd had multiple offers for help and had taken the names and phone numbers of people who offered him furniture and places to stay. He had intended to call some of them, but didn't think he'd bother now because they probably wouldn't help.
He wasn't sure he'd ever come back to his Wal-Mart spot here, but he'd keep the donations of food, clothes and other goods that people had given him since early September.
In researching Thursday's story, the Sun Journal obtained Stevens' driving record from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which noted that his driver's license was indefinitely suspended on Oct. 21 for not having insurance on his vehicle when he had an accident in Augusta. According to Auburn police, Stevens' license is not currently under suspension.