Panhandlers: 'Nobody gives us money anymore' after ban
By MICHAEL FUTCH
May. 13, 2018
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — The crudely lettered sign is written on a piece of cardboard.
"Homeless vet needs help."
Most drivers appear to ignore the bearded man holding it as they nudge past him to exit the Lowe's parking lot along Skibo Road.
But persistence pays off for Craig Kennedy, a 54-year-old with silver-white hair who lives in the woods about a half-mile from here. As a Chevrolet sports utility vehicle edges forward, slowly past him, someone passes a bill from a passenger window.
Under a new Fayetteville ordinance, police could issue a fine to that person for giving Kennedy money, and to Kennedy for taking it on the street corner. The ordinance was patterned after a similar measure adopted in Charleston, South Carolina, three years ago.
No one yet has gotten a ticket since the Fayetteville City Council voted 9-1 late last month to ban people in vehicles from giving or receiving items from pedestrians — in effect, a ban on roadside panhandling. Once enforcement of the ordinance begins, perhaps very soon, police officers will have authority to issue civil citations to violators.
Some panhandlers and city officials say advance word on the regulation already has motorists thinking twice about making those spontaneous donations to the homeless and destitute on street corners.
"Man, it's bullcrap. Nobody gives us money anymore," said Kennedy, a former Navy medic and Persian Gulf War veteran who was born to a military family in St. John's, Newfoundland. "When I first came out here, everything was great."
Kennedy, who is known in homeless circles as "Doc," said he has been on the streets for a decade.
"I'm tired of it. And I can't get no help," he said. "We can't get work. We can't get a job. We don't have alarm clocks. You've got to live in this life to understand. You've got to live in the woods."
In October, members of the City Council asked city staff to look into new ways to stop panhandlers. Councilmen Jim Arp, Bill Crisp and Chalmers McDougald, who was still on the council at the time, talked about the complaints they were getting from residents, some of whom felt intimidated.
Lawmen are forced to tread a fine line when dealing with street beggars: Panhandling is protected speech under the First Amendment, and laws against it can be deemed unconstitutional.
Emily Seawell, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, has raised concerns about the new Fayetteville ordinance.
"We're concerned by efforts to criminalize or penalize people for panhandling, an activity that is protected by the First Amendment and in many cases driven by poverty," she said in an email. "It is clear that this ordinance is purposefully designed to target people who ask others for money or give others money. But as written, it is still vague and so broad that it could be enforced against other activities."
Police attorney Brandon Christian emphasizes that the measure, which he calls a motor vehicle regulation, is not a panhandling ordinance. City officials say the ordinance is designed to keep traffic moving and intersections safe.
"This ordinance has more to do with public safety and traffic safety," said Lt. Gary Womble, a spokesman for the Police Department. "What we're trying to prohibit is the passing of items from vehicles in public streets and highways, especially in areas of high traffic congestion. Especially in areas like the Cross Creek Mall area."
Yet, the ordinance was implemented in part by council's desire to thwart panhandling, which has remained a nuisance around the city despite a panhandling ordinance adopted a decade ago. Section 17 of the city's code of ordinances outlawed panhandling at certain locations, such as downtown, on the shoulders or medians of highways, in parks, at bus stops, near ATMs and anywhere after dark.
"We have not passed any panhandling ordinance since Sec. 17-1 was adopted years ago," Christian said in an email.
That 2008 ordinance never seemed to make much of an impression on the city's panhandlers, who have remained a common presence on the medians and roadsides of main intersections. For years, they have claimed panhandling spots along Skibo Road, in the Cross Creek Mall area, outside fast food restaurants in the vicinity of the Crown Coliseum, along exit ramps for the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway, and at the intersection of Grove Street and Eastern Boulevard.
John Lewis, 30, of Fayetteville, said their presence infuriates him, especially the younger ones. He believes they should be out working a job.
"Seems like every time you turn around, they're on the street corners, especially in this location," he said of the retailers around Fayetteville Pavilion, across from Target on Skibo Road.
Maria Pressley, 49, of Fayetteville, had kinder words for those who ask for handouts. "As a citizen," she said, "they don't bother me. I mostly see them when I drive.
"I feel bad, you don't want to see anybody in that situation asking for money, but you don't know if you're really helping them when you give it to them. Whether they're using it for drugs or alcohol," Pressley said. "They seem to be pretty docile."
Kennedy, the man who was panhandling near Lowe's, says the city's new ordinance changes the landscape for people like him. His camping companion, a homeless man who goes by "Possum," agreed. The men say some of their fellow panhandlers have left the area because motorists are not as willing to give them money because of the new rules. Kennedy said he knew of at least four people who have moved on because of the stricter regulation.
"Everybody just ran for cover," Kennedy said.
In the past, the men said, they could pocket $90 or so a day by panhandling. "We haven't done that in a while," Kennedy said.
They agree that, in current conditions, the daily handouts are probably half what they used to be.
"They're killing us — the law. And we're not even breaking the law," piped in Possum, who declined to give his name. "They're pushing us to start stealing. I'd rather ask somebody, 'Can you give me a sandwich?' Can you buy me food?'"
Last year, Fayetteville police officers issued 92 panhandling citations, charging the defendants with the solicitation of alms or begging for money, a misdemeanor. These citations were issued from Jan. 2, 2017, through Dec. 23, according to Fayetteville police.
Of those 92 cited, 59 defendants were convicted in Cumberland County District Court. The maximum fine is $500 or imprisonment, or both.
As of Monday, 17 of the charges were pending. Another 16 were dismissed by the court or the district attorney. Two citations were not valid or didn't have a public record.
The city's new ordinance is a civil violation, meaning offenders may face fines but not criminal charges.
The first violation will result in a written warning. The second violation means a $25 fine, and all subsequent violations carry a $100 fine. The ordinance does not apply to exchanges in parking lots, on private roads, on unmarked neighborhood streets or involving roadside newspaper sales.
Womble, the Police Department spokesman, said a plan is in place to train and educate officers before any tickets are written. As early as this week, he added, the department will begin rolling out information through social media to educate residents.
"Once that's done," he said, "we'll have the enforcement implementation part. What we're trying to do, with the chief's intent on this, is to educate everyone first on the spirit and letter of the ordinance. What it means and make sure everybody understands."
Actual enforcement, Womble said, will come "in the very near future."
Charleston enacted a similar regulation in 2015. Police Lt. Heath King said the purpose of that ordinance is to prevent people from stepping into traffic and vehicle crashes.
King is commander of the city's central business district, where much of Charleston's problems with homelessness occur. As the city grew, so did the number of beggars on the street corners.
Like Fayetteville, Charleston first tried to teach the public about the law.
"I think the 30-day education period is a very important piece of this and similar ordinances," King said. "We don't want to write tickets. We want to educate the public."
Since 2015, King said, the ordinance has put a dent in the city's panhandling problem.
"It has," he said. "Have the numbers declined? Yes. I don't want to use the word 'eradicated.' The numbers have definitely declined."
King said he didn't have statistics available to him last week, but he added, "We've had a decrease in the number of people stepping out into traffic."
Alaina Comer is 21 and has been homeless for roughly two months. She said she has seen fewer panhandlers since Fayetteville adopted the new regulations on March 26.
She said she stops approaching people for money after collecting about $30 for the day. That money, she said, is for the things she needs, including food and socks.
"I don't use it for those types of things," she said, alluding to alcohol and drugs. "I do buy cigarettes. The way I look at it, that's money somebody gives to me. I'm not going to use it for (other vices)."
She apologizes and briefly steps away to beg a cigarette off another homeless person. Before she sat down for an interview, Comer had walked up to a customer leaving a fast food restaurant to ask for money. He gave her a handful of change.
Comer, whose eyes watered up when she spoke of leaving a troubled home life behind, said she's trying to find work. "It's not like I'm not applying," she said. "I tried multiple places."
She said she doesn't stand by the road and hold a sign.
Instead, she approaches people.
"I never flew a sign before," she said. "There's little things I need every day. I don't have to make $300, $400 a day. I don't have to do that."
Jim Arp, who represents District 9 on the Fayetteville City Council, was a leading proponent of the new regulation. He said it's not meant just for panhandlers, but for anyone who stands at a street soliciting money. He cited the fundraising efforts of some church groups and athletic teams, whose representatives run onto busy thoroughfares collecting donations.
District 9 includes the central part of the city's retail district, including Cross Creek Mall.
"I have heard from constituents who complained about people standing out in the medians at busy intersections. The athletic groups," Arp said. "Kids running out, and the light turns green, and nobody can go. I've also seen it a lot. District 9 is my district. We were just overrun with people standing at medians at every intersection, crossing back and forth. It was a safety issue."
Though Fayetteville police have yet to begin enforcing the ordinance, Arp said it appears to already have made an impact.
"We're seeing fewer people," he said. "You don't see people in the median on Skibo Road like we used to see. Definitely curbed that. Whether it's curbed panhandling as a whole, I can't speak to that. I would say it has reduced the amount of panhandling."
Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com