Panhandling Amendments Draw Polarized Crowd - TribPapers

Panhandling Amendments Draw Polarized Crowd

Persons with strong feelings for and against regulating panhandling spoke before Asheville City Council. This was just for housekeeping amendments to keep the ordinances enforceable and in-line with state and national regulations. More controversial changes will come before council in October.

Asheville – The chambers of Asheville City Council were filled to overflowing with people wishing to speak on proposed changes to the city’s panhandling ordinances. City Attorney Brad Branham explained the matter was merely one of housekeeping to align the city’s codes with recent Supreme Court rulings and state legislation and to eliminate some ambiguities. Changes included things like removing the word “immediately” and setting a stay-away distance, for people whose solicitations have been declined, at eight feet. Panhandling will continue to be legal on sidewalks, but permits will be required to panhandle from streets, road shoulders, or traffic medians. More controversial amendments are being vetted, and they will be brought before council in October.

Councilwoman Kim Roney was opposed to the ordinance, her comments being consistent with her stance that law and order furthers the interests of white privilege. Councilwoman Antanette Moseley countered that the ordinance “actually narrows” the power of the ordinance, saying she might feel unsafe with declined solicitors only eight feet away. In response to concerns that the short-staffed Asheville Police Department (APD) does not need to be hassling panhandlers, Branham said making the ordinances clear and legally defensible would help officers.

Councilwoman Sheneika Smith corrected one of her peers for saying the purpose of the ordinance was “to move people along.” She said the purpose was to direct panhandlers to services. Branham said the overarching objectives were not punitive but to protect the rights of both the panhandlers and the panhandled and to look after the safety of both.

Roney said that by policing Pritchard Park, the city was displacing panhandlers into neighborhoods, away from services. Mayor Esther Manheimer replied that it was important not to equate panhandling with homelessness. Manheimer said a lot of people had contacted council, asking them to address the root causes of homelessness instead of penalizing panhandling. Manheimer and Turner both said they did not know of a time when city council had done more to house the homeless.

Councilwoman Maggie Ullman supported the technical changes, but she did not want the city to start fining panhandlers or their patrons. She remarked, “Charity is intensely personal and spiritual and religious for many, and I don’t see that government intervening in that individual’s choice of charity is in our best interest. I think it will harm more than help.” Councilwoman Antanette Moseley thanked Ullman for those remarks, sharing her observation that it is the more vulnerable who tend to be the most charitable. She said fining donors could result in taking money away from those who already have less than those they’re trying to help.

Through an hour of public comment, people opposed to the direction the next iteration of amendments might take argued in the name of humanity not to criminalize poverty. Several, including two women in clerical collars, spoke of the ordinance being at odds with Christianity. Javan Lapp, an attorney, was no stranger to crime. He had had his face broken in three places, his father was murdered, and his sister fell prey to the opioid epidemic. He told council the panhandling ordinance would do nothing to curb violent crime; it would only pound down those who were already down and out. Patrick Conant said the ordinance was a “cold-hearted distraction” that would “criminalize poverty and common acts of kindness.”

Business owners complained about panhandlers harassing patrons, sometimes aggressively and threateningly. Some shared photographs. Chad Nesbitt told of vagrants on Tunnel Road. Some live on roofs and steal the copper out of HVAC fixtures; some carry machetes as they walk through parking lots. They set tents on fire, and filth and drug abuse proliferate, he said.

Members of the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety spoke about the root cause of addiction. Mark Delk said aggressive panhandlers are “not in their right mind,” and what local government calls “harm reduction” is “harm reassignment” at best. A healthy criminal justice system, he said, discourages harmful behavior, rehabilitates those who fail to be discouraged, and isolates those who resist rehabilitation. He suggested lobbying or looking for private donors to build stronger, better drug courts.

Jonathan Wainscott said the opposition was attacking a strawman. At hand was a panhandling ordinance, but people were trying to use it to solve all social ills. Nobody was going to attack consensual acts of charity. The problem was aggressive harassment. He described the streets of Asheville as a “21st-century drunk tank and a 21st-century looney bin.” On a light note, he complimented City Attorney Brad Branham on doing an excellent job with the ordinance, saying he was “as sharp as his haircut.”