Gary, 45, makes his living holding a cardboard sign.

"Aliens abducted my goldfish. Need ransom," stated the sign he held outside of Wal-Mart one recent afternoon.

"I figure, if I make people laugh out here, it ain't really panhandling," he said, his long brown beard coated with frost in the 5-degree cold. "It's like a job. You pay cable TV to get a laugh."

Gary, who declined to give his last name, said he sleeps just down the way from the store, under the bridge at North Seventh Avenue and Interstate 90. He said he's happy if he makes $20 a day panhandling, or "enough to buy a little bit of tobacco and a couple of beers."

"People think you're making $3,000 a month," he said. "Why would I sleep under a bridge if I was making $3,000 a month?"

Gary's occupation is perfectly legal in Bozeman right now. The city doesn't have any rules against panhandling.

But that could change.

Some Bozeman officials say they'd like the city to join the ranks of Missoula and Billings, where stricter guidelines apply to people soliciting spare change on the street.

"I think we're headed towards having some kind of ordinance on the books some time this year," Bozeman City Commissioner Chris Mehl said this week. "But first, I think we do a little research and learn from other cities."

‘A way to survive'

Mostly, panhandlers choose spots outside big-box stores, such as Wal-Mart on North Seventh Avenue and Target just off North 19th Avenue. Or, they stand at the I-90 interchanges and solicit drivers getting on and off the highway.

Gary said he's been a tramp since he left home in Ohio at age 18. He has traveled North America, working odd jobs and panhandling.

"It's a lifestyle," he said.

Peter Bayer, 45, disagreed.

"I'm not a drunk," Bayer said. "You don't have a place to stay, you can't get a job. You don't have a job, you can't get a place to stay.

"For me, it's not about a way to make a living, it's about a way to survive until I can find a job. Sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do just to eat dinner and get a bath," he said.

As he spoke, Bayer sat on a bag containing his tent near I-90 on North 19th. He, too, held a sign: "Disabled veteran. Anything helps. Need work. God bless u."

Bayer, originally from Texas, said he's been panhandling on and off for three years, but when people offer him day jobs, he takes them.

‘Flying a sign'

Both Gary and Bayer call what they do "flying a sign" rather than panhandling. The difference, they said, is that they don't actively approach people or hassle them for money.

"I sit here and make people laugh, you know," Gary said. "If they want to give me a buck, then it's up to them."

Indeed, within about five minutes of watching Gary give passing motorists a grin and a "thumbs up," a woman stopped, told him to "Stay warm," and handed him $1.

Gary's perch on the sidewalk at the Oak Street entrance to Wal-Mart was far enough from the store's sign to put him in the public right-of-way and not on private property, he said.

In the summer, Gary said, some panhandlers approach people in Wal-Mart's parking lot and store employees ask them to move. He tells those panhandlers not to ruin it for the passive sign holders.

Gary said he's not interested in panhandling downtown Bozeman because there are better places to stand to get drivers' attention. And, he said, he knows people would complain.

Punishing the poor?

Regulating panhandling can be challenging.

Bozeman used to have anti-panhandling laws, set decades ago as part of an archaic vagrancy ordinance. Then in 2002, Bozeman police cited a woman for holding up a sign that said, "Anything helps" at a public intersection near Target.

The woman was charged with a misdemeanor, but a judge called the city's ordinance "medieval," and the city attorney's office decided to drop the charges.

"You're punishing somebody for being poor and that's not permissible," Patricia Day-Moore, then a staff attorney for the city, told the Chronicle at the time.

The city stopped enforcing the rule.

"Non-aggressive panhandling could be fundraising for the Bozeman Library Foundation," Chris Harris, an attorney who represented Bozeman in the Montana House, added in http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/article_1c252a70-172d-501e-9135-1b51b3b69763.html"> a January 2003 Chronicle article. "If you have a nice suit on and you're asking people for money ... how is that really different from the passive begging that is an occupation that has existed since the time of Christ?"

Homeless advocates, meanwhile, say outright bans on panhandling are unconstitutional.

Billings, Missoula laws

The right to panhandle is protected by the First Amendment, said Ginny Merriam, communications officer for the city of Missoula. "It's free speech talking to people on the street saying, ‘Can I have money?'"

Both Missoula and Billings enacted "aggressive solicitation" ordinances after receiving complaints about panhandlers in their downtowns, Merriam and Billings deputy attorney Craig Hensel said.

"We addressed some of the most annoying parts of it to people," Merriam said.

For example, it's illegal in both places to "commercially solicit" near a public bathroom, ATM, pay phone or bus stop. Panhandlers can't approach vehicles in the road or block the path of a pedestrian they're soliciting.

They also can't lie.

Both Billings and Missoula prohibit false or misleading representations, including stating that you're from out-of-town and stranded when that's not true, falsely suggesting that you're a veteran, pretending to have a disability or lying about being homeless.

In Billings, the penalty for violating the ordinance is up to a $500 fine, six months in jail, or both. In Missoula, the penalty is up to a $100 fine.

Missoula also promotes anti-panhandling campaigns such as Real Change, Not Spare Change. The city has about 90 donation carafes in downtown businesses, where people can drop their change rather than giving the money directly to a panhandler, Merriam said. Donations fund the local food bank, homeless shelter and Salvation Army.

Anti-panhandling policies vary

Cities across the nation have tried a variety of ways to discourage panhandling.

Orlando, Fla., made it illegal to panhandle downtown, except in designated panhandling zones, where small boxes are outlined on the sidewalk. Panhandlers can stand in the boxes, but not move outside toward pedestrians.

Raleigh, N.C., requires panhandlers to obtain a license from its police department. The license is free, but applicants get a background check for outstanding warrants as part of the application process. The city has arrested people for panhandling without a license.

In Pittsburgh, the city hired people to walk around downtown wearing sandwich boards that read, "Don't support panhandling."

Denver, Las Vegas, Baltimore, San Francisco and Seattle are among more than a dozen cities that have turned parking meters into donation stations for the homeless. Denver's parking meters read, "Give a better way," and encourage pedestrians, when confronted by panhandlers, to put their spare change in one of the parking meters instead. The meter money goes to projects for the homeless, and the pedestrian can show the panhandler that they care.

City has mixed views

In Bozeman, it's unclear whether there would be enough support on the city commission to pass anti-panhandling policies.

Mayor Jeff Krauss launched the idea earlier this month after the commission decided to help pay for a temporary warming center for the homeless this winter. He expressed concern that the center might attract more panhandlers.

Word may travel that Bozeman is a place where people have a warm place to sleep and where they can make money begging, he said.

"Before we just say, ‘olly olly oxen free,' we need to take a look at whether we want to continue allowing that behavior," Krauss said last week. "If it was happening downtown, people would be a lot more concerned about it."

Still, there's at least one commissioner against panhandling restrictions.

Commissioner Carson Taylor said he doesn't think panhandling is much of a problem in Bozeman.

"I just drive by those guys," he said. "So, I don't feel oppressed by them."

Taylor said anti-panhandling laws are basically a way of telling poor people "to go somewhere else."

"I'm not into passing people off to other communities," he said. "I don't think that's a very good national policy."

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628.