"I do agree there is a problem associated with panhandling," says homeless man Marco Brown, "but not all panhandlers are the same."
The neighborhood survey found that 430 respondents had decreased their trips to the Mall, and that 48 percent reported feeling "unsafe and uncomfortable" on the Mall, with 27 percent mentioning the increased presence of panhandling and the homeless.
The success of the Downtown Mall is a miracle in many ways. After it was completed in 1976, initially eliminating five blocks of Charlottesville's Main Street to revitalize the downtown area, it did nothing of the sort, sputtering along for 20 years, a largely desolate place with an odd assortment of stores, and a few bar/restaurants that served a budding underground music and art scene largely ignored by the general public. UVA students, by and large, didn't go near the place.
Then, as the 1990s began, something started to happen. Maybe it was the birth of one of the country's biggest rock bands on those bricks and in those bars, and the cool that band brought to the place. Maybe it was the emergence of a certain weekly newspaper that often chronicled life on the Mall. Maybe it was the risk someone took to build a movie theater and an ice rink. Maybe it was more incremental, as small business after small business took a risk and began setting up shop on the Mall.
In the last several months, President Barrack Obama, the Dalai Lama, and Bruce Springsteen have visited the Downtown Mall, and it is the home of vibrant music venues, a film festival, books and photography, and over 65 restaurants. Over Black Friday weekend, hundreds of people strolled the Mall as street musicians played, carols were sung, and cash registers rang along with the Salavation Army bell.
One nearby neighborhood group, however, believes that the "Downtown Mall is in trouble," a victim of its own success, attracting many visitors, yes, but also attracting a "troublesome" population group.
Earlier this year, representatives of the North Downtown Neighborhood Association completed a 36-page report, based on several surveys, which concludes that homeless panhandlers and "groups of idlers" have "seriously deteriorated" the quality of public life at a "important and vibrant public meeting place." The report recommends new ordinances to prohibit sitting and lying down on the Mall, obscene language, and displaying homemade cardboard signs.
During a November 20 City Council meeting, passionate advocates for the homeless denounced such proposals, and once again the sensitive issue of what to do about the perceived increase in panhandling on the Mall has come to the forefront.
Previously, battles have been fought over the removal by City Officials of some of the benches on the Mall to curb “behavior problems" as well as recent ordinances to restrict aggressive panhandling, which some call unconstitutional.
But is there really a problem?
In their most recent annual report, the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH), which operates The Haven just off the Downtown Mall, gives a good snapshot of the extent of our homeless problem. According to data collected for 2011 from around Central Virginia, 398 adults and 19 children in the region have sought services, and 205 adults and 18 children used emergency shelters. Of those, 35 percent reported being chronically homeless, and 27 percent suffered from some kind of mental illness. Surprisingly, only 11 percent said panhandling was their source of financial support for the previous 30 days, while 60 percent said it was food stamps and 22 percent said it was a full-time job.
In addition, 52 percent of those homeless who have sought services are African American, and 61 percent are male. Their biggest challenges? 56 percent said it's not being able to find housing; 48 percent said not being able to find work; 32 percent said dealing with a separation or divorce. And education? Thirty-nine percent have a high school diploma/GED; 25 percent have some college.
The Downtown Mall report, of course, has a narrower focus. The conclusions by the five-person North Downtown neighborhood committee were reached after 2,300 people responded to a survey that was inserted in gas and water bills sent out in May and April of this year. The survey found that 430 respondents had decreased their trips to the Mall, and that 48 percent reported feeling "unsafe and uncomfortable" on the Mall, with 27 percent mentioning the increased presence of panhandling and the homeless.
"I have definitely seen a decline in the Downtown Mall over the last few years," says Nelson County resident Dawn Cook. "I personally do not feel safe walking after dark by myself to my car."
That was the opinion of quite a few survey respondents. However, people seem to have wildly different perspectives.
"I would have to disagree," says Amanda Welch, who operates a hand-crafted soap booth at the City Market. "We moved to the area in 1988, when the Mall was a desolate place. Now it is vibrant and always full of people. I never feel intimidated by anyone on the Mall and I go all times of the day and night."
Indeed, a British exchange student at UVA we spoke to on the Mall didn't seem to understand what the problem was. A resident of Oxford, which has a population around 165,000, Josceline Edwards says she grew up seeing homeless people on the street.
"So that's really nothing to me. Students love the free bus down here," she says, "And I never feel unsafe."
One observation Edwards has, regarding the the way Americans interact with one another compared to Brits, might be worth noting.
"In England, people are very reserved, and they guard fiercely their private space in public," she says. "But Americans sometimes get right in your face. I think the two countries could learn something from each other in this regard, in terms of finding a proper balance for public interaction."
What's more, Welch says she considers parking a bigger deterrent to going to the Mall. Indeed, the neighborhood survey revealed that 43 percent of those surveyed cited parking problems as the reason they stayed away from the Mall, compared to 27 percent who said that panhandling and the homeless kept them away.
"But there is nothing that discourages me from going to get coffee, go to the movies, shop, enjoy the film festival, go out late to hear music at the Pavilion, Paramount, Jefferson, or any of the smaller venues," says Welch. "We should appreciate what a great place it is."
Some, however, think that daily enjoyment of the Mall is becoming more difficult.
"I work on the mall and feel I can't even take a walk at lunch without having a pan-handler try and hit me up for a few bucks every single day," says Mark Sargent, a network engineer for the city of Charlottesville. "There are many occasions that I have witnessed several screaming profanities at each other without care or concern for the fact that there are others around."
However, Travis Lively, an employee at Monticello, says he finds the downtown report "ridiculous and pretentious."
"If you don't like living in the downtown of a city, move." he says. "If you don't like panhandlers, don't give them money. If you don't like people trespassing on your property, call the police."
Another survey done by the downtown group, an online one on the city's website, asked patrons of the Mall to characterize their recent experiences. According to the survey, which drew 312 responses, 86 percent had an "unfavorable view" of the Mall.
Finally, a survey of 43 members of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville concluded that 42 percent of the members worried that panhandling and the homeless would adversely effect the future health of the Mall. In addition, 40 percent cited personal safety concerns, and 33 percent reported that business had decreased in the last two years. Only 3 percent, the survey concluded, felt that the decline in business was caused by the poor economy alone.
As previously mentioned, the report calls for new ordinances that prohibit sitting and lying down on the Mall, obscene language, and displaying homemade cardboard signs, plus an increased police presence on the Mall and the installation of surveillance cameras.
"I don't support all of the report's recommendations," says City Councilor Dave Norris, a long-time advocate for the homeless, "but I do think this is a necessary conversation for us to have. People in our community have been subjected to threatening or harassing behavior Downtown, and in order to keep the Downtown Mall a vital economic and cultural hub, the City has to take steps to promote safety - without trampling on people's basic civil liberties."
The neighborhood group, however, wants action from City Council.
"The situation calls for immediate action to sustain, improve, and protect our treasured asset," the report concludes.
That got the attention of John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a non-profit legal organization that defends constitutional rights, who contacted City Manager Maurice Jones on November 2, saying he was "deeply disturbed" by the report.
"This report calling for city officials to ostracize the homeless in favor of commercial and aesthetic interests is a sad reflection on Charlottesville,” said Whitehead in a statement later that day, “Homelessness is a tragic problem in this country, and not one that will be resolved by hiding it away or criminalizing those who already struggle to get by. Frankly, the last thing this city or any other needs is more laws.”
The North Downtown Neighborhood association, after the public fall-out over the report, fired back with a recent press release.
"The report is not about disenfranchising a segment of our community; rather, it is about investigating residents’ complaints and attempting to balance the needs and rights of all within this community," the November 28 press release stated. "Many of the services provided to the homeless population take place in the North Downtown neighborhood, and many of its residents participate in serving this population as volunteers with the Haven, PACEM and the downtown church soup kitchens."
A Day on the Mall
Lost sometimes in the debate about the increase in panhandling on the Mall are the perspectives of the panhandlers themselves. Who are these people? Some, indeed, are bad characters who we might be wise to approach with caution. Reporters included.
For example, back in June the Newsplex ran a story about the five benches on Central Place that were removed by City Officials to curb problem behavior. A homeless man interviewed in the story, one Joe Bolasky, was quoted sympathetically as an opponent of the move, saying it was really an "attack" on the homeless.
Indeed, there were many advocates for the homeless who agreed with that position. One homeless man we spoke to said the draconian move not only affected the homeless, but also anyone else looking for a public place to sit, particularly the elderly.
However, after inspecting Bolasky's court records, the Hook learned that he was a convicted sex offender who had been charged with "indecent liberties with child by custodian."
On any given day, the sidewalk in front of the The Haven on Market Street, a shelter for the homeless, can be the site of fist fights, shouting matches, lovers quarrels, drunkenness, and police visits. Oftentimes, this kind of behavior leaks out on to the Mall proper, where certain panhandlers will pester cafe patrons, or be abusive if they aren't given money. In certain areas of the Mall, people can be seen camping out on the bricks with blankets and homemade signs asking for money, with a cute dog on a leash beside them.
Make no mistake, the homeless in our midst can be a troublesome bunch. But that's not the whole story.
On a bright November day recently, cold in the shadows created by the buildings on the Downtown Mall, but warm where the sun shone down on the side streets, street musicians and panhandlers are positioned up and down the Mall. A man wrapped in blankets sits in front of the Jefferson Theater with his dog, several people mill about the Second Street entrance to Central Place, and another man with a dog on a leash stands in front of the Paramount Theater.
Robert Whiteowl, who plays his flute sometimes at the entrance to First Street, is quick to remind a reporter that street musicians should not be lumped in with panhandlers, but they often are in the media and in discussions about the panhandling problem.
"The biggest problem down here is panhandling," says Whiteowl, who has been playing on the Mall for a decade. "This is how us street musicians make a living, and panhandling isn't good for business. I'm not sure how you fix it. But the fact is that most people who panhandle down here aren't even homeless."
Whiteowl mentions a black man in a wheelchair who he says isn't homeless. Indeed, when we run into Robert Turner, an African American panhandler who positions himself next to the hot dog cart beside Bank of America, we learn he has a small apartment on Ridge Street.
As luck would have it, Turner, an elderly man with his legs cut off at the knees, accepted a five-dollar bill from a man passing by as we were speaking to him.
"It's not about the money all the time," the man says. "John picks me up sometimes when I feel down, and so when I have a little extra I'm happy to give it to him."
As one Mall patron, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out, the City's main employer, the University of Virginia, has one of the biggest "panhandling" operations around, though it's called "development," holding out its hand for millions of donations each year.
Sure, the money might go to good causes (though some might disagree on that), the patron says, "but isn't giving five-bucks to a homeless person on a cold winter day as good a donation as any?"
Of course, that may seem like an outrageous comparison to some people, but is it really?
Turner isn't homeless, but he has no other way than panhandling to make money, which he has been doing seven days a week for the last four years.
"I think the Downtown Mall is a safe and friendly place," says Turner, " as long as I don't bother anyone, and no one bothers me."
Like our larger society, however, another panhandler thinks that ordinances and policies designed to make it harder for a class of people to exist, in reaction to the bad behavior of a few, simply isn't fair.
"Plenty of people who aren't homeless get drunk and loud and obnoxious at places on the Downtown Mall," says panhandler Marco Brown, "but that doesn't mean you create an ordinance that makes it harder for everyone to go to bars and restaurants."
Brown, who has a vision disability and visits The Haven, has cornered a spot in front of the Mall-side elevator in the Market Street Parking garage, where he sits on the bricks leaning against one of the big black flower pots. "How are you today, Sir," or "ma'am" if a lady walks by, he always says to passers-by, holding the cardboard sign he's made asking for money against his chest.
"I do agree there is a problem associated with panhandling," says Brown, "but not all panhandlers are the same."
"Sitting out in public with a sign asking for money is a 'cry for help,'" says Brown, "But I try not to let the way I feel affect how I treat people."
"I think the sense of community may be eroded," says Matt Farrell, who began going to the Mall back in the late 1980s, "but as much on the part of citizens as on the part of those being called vagrants."
As an experiment twice, once at noon and once at midnight, Farrell did one loop of the Mall each, offering a cheerful greeting to every person he passed. At noon, twelve out of fifty-one such greetings were returned. At midnight, seventeen out of twenty-seven.
"This is a major departure from the old and Southern small-town habit of mutual courtesy in mutual acknowledgement that builds over time to a feeling of shared belonging to a community, and significantly, to mutual respect," says Farrell.
For Farrell, the issue is respect and courtesy, for everyone. One idea, he says, might be to write and distribute for free to panhandlers and homeless persons a booklet addressing them plainly and politely and making helpful suggestions for their survival, hygiene, public behaviors, and suggesting activities they might undertake or acts they might perform to help them be better received in the public space.
"Which would allow them to contribute more to the aesthetic and liveliness of the Mall, and less threatening or distracting in ways perceived as detrimental to others' enjoyment or use of Downtown," he suggests.
Wouldn't that be nice. But is anyone prepared to do that?
"You can't blame the homeless for our reality," says Brown, "we as a society are all to blame. We're out here because we simply don't have the resources."
On cue, in a snapshot of that disparity of resources, a well-known local hedge fund manager strolls by, someone who manages $1.3 billion dollars for other people.
"We don't want anyone to make this easy for us," says Brown, talking about more proposed ordinances on panhandling, "we just want it to be fair."