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'It's freedom of speech'

By Sean Flynn

Staff writer

NEWPORT - Dustin Griffin, 42, and his fiancee, Megan Pember, 27, are homeless and often can be seen panhandling on Admiral Kalbfus Road, sometimes across from Newport Grand near the Route 138 exit ramp, and sometimes in the median strip nearby.

“I fear nothing,” Griffin said earlier this week in reaction to a proposed panhandling ordinance that came up before City Council Wednesday night.

“It's freedom of speech under the Constitution,” he said. “It's not going to be banned by a local council. They've tried it before.”

The couple has been sleeping in a tent in different locations around the city since May this year, Griffin said.

“We set up the tent anyplace we can,” he said.

They had been sleeping under or near the Van Zandt Bridge but police officers have not allowed them to use that site, or anyplace else where they are found, Pember said.

“We were under the bridge ramps, but they kicked us out,” Griffin said.

“I'd like to get about 10 homeless people together and sue the city for harassment,” he said.

SPEECH A8

Dustin Griffin, 42, and his fiancee Megan Pember, 27, panhandle recently near Newport Grand on Admiral Kalbfus Road in Newport.

Daily News file photo

Continued from A1

The city panhandling ordinance originally proposed by Councilman John Florez suggested establishing a jobs program that would employ homeless people at minimum wage. Tasks could include picking up litter and other tasks to beautify the city, Florez said. The model is a successful program based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he said.

Griffin said he could not work at a job like that, but he would try one if he could sit down. He often sits on a box while panhandling.

“I have stomach cancer,” he said.

He said he was diagnosed about six months ago. His father also had stomach cancer, Griffin said.

“From my father's experience, I won't take pain medication,” he said. He said his sister talked him into going to a doctor in Hartford, Connecticut, because he had been losing so much weight.

“My weight reached 270 pounds at one point,” he said. “Now, I'm between 140 and 145 pounds.”

He said he also has back and spinal problems.

“I haven't been able to work in a straight-up job for many years,” he said.

Griffin said he was born and grew up in Newport, but then spent time in Florida, where he graduated from Lakeland High School. After school, he moved back to this area and worked in the food service industry for years, many of them at fast food service chains.

He has been homeless for the most part during the past four years and three months, he said.

He has four kids - two daughters and two sons between the ages of 9 and 22.

“I never married, but I was together with one woman for 15 years. She has a boyfriend, but we still have a good relationship.”

Pember said she would love to work at a job if she could find one. She listed many restaurants and shops where she has submitted job applications.

She is denied a job because she has no permanent address, and employers are concerned she be presentable when she reports to work, she said “That is their reason to not give me a job, but it's not fair,” she said.

Pember said she knows a nice woman with an apartment at one of the nearby complexes.

“I get a place to shower sometimes,” she said. “If I can't find a shower, I use bottles of water.”

Pember said she has problems with depression and personality disorders, and has split with her family for different reasons. Griffin said the two of them can make $50 to $70 on a good day of panhandling, which keeps them fed and with necessities. He said their “regulars” give them food such as soups and gift cards.

“If there is a snowstorm, we can sleep in a living room,” Pember said of acquaintances who sometimes help out. “It's definitely good.”

Griffin has stayed at the McKinney Shelter downtown, but the shelter is limited to 19 beds for men and six beds for women. He said the women's beds are almost always occupied and he does not want to leave Pember alone.

“I call the shelter almost every day, but they don't have space for me,” she said. “Dustin won't leave me out here alone.”

“We have no choice but to put up a tent and find a mattress,” Griffin said. “You have to do what you have to do to survive. We get dirty looks all the time.”

Pember is worried what this lifestyle will do to them in the upcoming months.

“I know I'm going to freeze this winter,” she said. “I'm tired and exhausted. I don't know what else to do. I don't think I am going to make it to my 28th birthday.”

That would be Aug. 4, 2017.

“Dustin thinks as long as we have each other, we'll be OK,” she said. “I hope he's right.”

Flynn@NewportRI.com

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