COVER- Down and out: Controversy erupts over panhandling downtown
Mark Brown doesn't like begging. The owner of what was long known as the Charlottesville Ice Park (now the Main Street Arena), Brown recently helped formulate an ad campaign to help the homeless and put the hurt on panhandling– and he ran straight into controversy.
Brown says the concept was designed to steer dollars toward agencies and curtail panhandling, a practice widely seen as funding drug and alcohol abuse. He says the campaign was based on research the head of the area's new homeless shelter conducted on how other communities have creatively handled the issue.
Some ideas have created panfuls of controversy.
"Please don't feed our bums," said one San Diego sticker campaign over the summer. A few years earlier, an Oregon entrepreneur raised ire by paying the homeless to hold cardboard signs that read "Pizza Schmizza paid me to hold this sign instead of asking for money."
Brown says he believed the Charlottesville ad campaign steered clear of such potentially antagonistic approaches by encouraging giving and pointing out the dollar amounts it takes to provide certain services: $2.10 for a hot meal; $10 for an ID card (necessary for getting work); $29 for a night at a shelter.
"You're a caring person in a caring community," read the ad text, "so when someone asks you for help, you want to help right then and there. But wouldn't you feel better if you knew exactly where your money was going?"
"We thought we'd reached a really nice compromise," says Brown, "something that would help the organizations that serve the needy and at the same time discourage the kind of behavior that makes customers not want to come downtown."
He was wrong.
At a meeting where the ad was presented to heads of various charities that help the homeless, Brown claims he was blindsided by vehement opposition.
"This guy gives a speech on our secret plan"–- and here Brown invokes sarcasm– "to prohibit poor people from coming downtown. Another board member, with tears in his eyes, says he was trembling with emotion at the power of this guy's speech about the right to panhandle."
"It was a little hard to understand the point they were trying to make," says the Downtown Business Association's director, Bob Stroh, who was there at the meeting to back the ad campaign.
"Our goal was pretty clear," says Stroh. "Panhandling is disruptive of our businesses, and it's not something most of our patrons appreciate."
The differences, though– however small– are insurmountable, says attorney Jeff Fogel, the impassioned speaker at the meeting.
"There is a constitutional right to beg," says Fogel, a man troubled by the attitudes he believes are embodied– perhaps even emboldened–- by the proposed ad campaign and by a newly expanded ordinance that now prohibits soliciting funds within 50 feet of the two mall crossings.
Previously, city law restricted only aggressive panhandling and solicitation of anyone entering or exiting a bank, using an ATM or seated at the outdoor cafés. In August, however, in what was ostensibly a safety measure, City Council voted on an ordinance expansion that would quash even musical busking near the Downtown Mall's two automobile crossings.
"My impression is that the only reason this is on the agenda of City Council is that some people in the Downtown Business Association don't like the sight of the impoverished on the Mall," Fogel says of the expanded ordinance, which he is considering fighting with a lawsuit.
Fogel is a man angered by the use of the word panhandling (something he finds pejorative when applied to those passively or politely asking for money). He calls the issue of begging– his preferred word– "not just a political legal question; it's a moral question as well."
Not liking something doesn't mean it should be outlawed, says Fogel, pointing to what he sees as a divide between what people say and how they act.
"There are many people with a spiritual background that have always had a particular respect for the least among us," he says. "But people throw those concepts out the window if they don't like what's in front of them."
Sociologists say the dichotomy is common.
"People are conceptually very compassionate," says Kaki Dimock. "But around the issue, as policy, they're much more self-preservative and protective."
The executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless, Dimock earned an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master's in social work. From her light-filled office on the fourth floor of the gracefully renovated church building that houses the Haven at First and Market– funded by film director and UVA grad Tom Shadyac– she now spends her days overseeing the Haven and coordinating services with several other homeless-helping nonprofits.
Dimock laughs and shakes her head at some of the allegations she's heard.
"Busing them in?" she repeats incredulously of the rumor that Charlottesville actively recruits its homeless population.
"We have a hard enough time serving the people who are already here," says Dimock. "Why would we ever do that?"
Ever since the Haven opened in January, Dimock has become the point person for addressing controversies about the impact of the homeless on businesses, and she says she understands the owners' concerns.
"In an economic climate like this, you're making sure you can maintain your business," she says. "Any risk to your customer base is of concern."
This past summer, Dimock says, she received the Coalition board's permission to work on the ad campaign with Stroh and Brown. Dimock, however, points out that the number of people panhandling is actually smaller than most people would believe.
A one-day census last January found just 274 people homeless in Charlottesville and surrounding counties, only six percent of whom said they'd collected money through direct solicitations. And Dimock says that only three or four of the beggars she sees regularly around downtown have ever visited the Haven.
"I don't even know if they're homeless," Dimock says of the beggars. "It's hard to know if panhandling and homelessness are directly connected."
One thing that seems certain, however, is that in Charlottesville, it's not necessary to beg to get food or shelter. Breakfast is provided daily at the Haven, daily lunches are served at a rotating slate of soup kitchens, and both the Salvation Army and the PACEM shelter network provide beds every night– the latter at various churches.
One thing no organization seems eager to supply, however, is money to support an addiction and that, Brown and Stroh say, is one of the primary reasons to stop handing money directly to beggars.
"If you have $100 to give to the needy in our community, how can you get the most bang for your buck?" asks Brown. "You don't get it by putting it in the hand or cup of a panhandler. You get the most out of that resource by giving it to the folks whose business it is to provide services."
Fogel however, contends that only aggressive panhandling should be outlawed, as it has long been, and he says the vast majority of the beggars he sees around downtown are within their constitutional rights– just like the musicians who leave their cases open while they play are within their rights and the Salvation Army bell ringers are within theirs.
Charlottesville mayor Dave Norris, however, says he stands by Council's ordinance expansion.
"I wanted us to go further," said Norris. "I wanted to see it expand to 15 feet within any place money is changing hands."
He says he bowed to advice from the city attorney who advised that begging– as long as it's not aggressive– is a constitutionally protected right.
"You can only restrict it within narrow circumstances," says Norris, who also hopes the controversial ad campaign will find new life, even if some of the wording is changed.
"We want people to have compassion, but to channel it in ways that are going to help people get on their feet," says Norris. "Not just sustain them in their present condition."
That, says Ice Park owner Brown, is the problem with the Haven, which he claims is anything but a place of hope for a brighter future. He offers another description: "warehouse of despair."
What is the Haven?
The 2006 filming of Evan Almighty was a high water mark in Central Virginia. A team of Hollywood personalities, including Steve Carrell and Morgan Freeman, came to town, and a giant ark was constructed in the then-new Old Trail development in Crozet for the sequel to Jim Carrey's comic hit Bruce Almighty.
For the film's director, Tom Shadyac, the location was a homecoming of sorts– and a turning point. He graduated UVA in 1981 and said he always held Charlottesville in high regard. Such high regard, in fact, that he was inspired to spend more than $3 million of his own money purchasing and then renovating the former First Christian Church on East Market Street for use as community center with its own day shelter. He even chipped in about a third of the $320,000 operating budget.
Shadyac is no stranger to simple living. As detailed in a recent piece in the L.A. Times, Shadyac has sold his Pasadena mansion and moved to a trailer park. His latest picture is not another Jim Carrey blockbuster, but a personal exploration interviewing the likes of Desmond Tutu called I Am.
For the Charlottesville homeless, the Haven that Shadyac created is a place where anyone can shower, wash clothes, eat breakfast, check email, store belongings, and just escape from unpleasant weather. Shadyac has expressed hope that it would also become a hub for services, where employment and financial counseling as well as medical or addiction treatment could be easily accessible in one convenient location.
The service piece, say critics like Brown, is what still needs work.
"When the only visible program that exists [at the Haven] is couches and big screen TVs," says Brown, "who's going to give money to that?"
Mayor Norris also expresses concern that the Haven's promised focus on finding jobs for the able bodied hasn't yet reached fruition– at least in part because the Piedmont Workforce Network (formerly the Virginia Employment Commission) hasn't returned downtown since it left Ridge-McIntire Road about three years ago.
"We had meetings with reps from Piedmont Workforce about establishing a satellite center so we'd have a downtown location, and it would be available not just to the homeless but to anyone who had a hard time getting out to Hydraulic Road," says Norris. "I don't know why that hasn't happened, but it hasn't. It's a vitally important piece of the puzzle in helping people get back on their feet."
Piedmont Workforce representatives did not return a reporter's calls by presstime, but Dimock says she remains hopeful that Workforce will join the slew of service providers already operating out of the Haven. These include Region 10, Offender Aid and Restoration, various 12-step programs, and a part-time on-site physician. The delay in Workforce's arrival, Dimock says, is due to the still slumping economy.
"They're inundated," she says, noting a significant uptick in the number of people with higher degrees who are now out of work.
Even without that piece in place, Dimock says the Haven is taking steps to encourage employment. Job listings are posted, computers are connected, and volunteers offer job and life advice. And Dimock says a new effort will bring in members of the Blue Ridge Rotary Club and UVA Students for International Free Enterprise to offer one-on-one career counseling to Haven guests.
And the Arena's Brown has regularly hired Haven visitors to pick up and lay down the event floor at his ice-equipped facility.
Still, the doubts about the Haven's effectiveness at getting people back on their feet aren't held only by downtown business owners; there's even doubt among the homeless service providers. In fact, the Salvation Army prohibits those staying in the shelter from spending time at the Haven.
"We're trying to get them back to self-sufficiency," explains the Salvation Army's Major Allen Johnson. "People at the Salvation Army should be out working or out looking for work."
Dimock acknowledges that the Haven doesn't require its patrons to engage in job searches, and says there are special challenges in working with a population in which mental illness and substance abuse are common. Depression, she says, is the most frequent ailment, and it can make job searches– which can go on for months– even more difficult. It's why, she says, the Haven doesn't have requirements or prerequisites for people to use the services. Although alcohol and drugs are banned from the premises, intoxicated people are allowed in the Haven as long as they follow the rules and aren't too disruptive.
"It does put a strain on our resources," says Dimock. "But would people rather we put them back out on the street where they'll be affecting everyone?"
Indeed, Dimock says, part of the Haven's purpose is removing some strain from other public resources. Perhaps nowhere has felt that effect more than the downtown branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. Before the Haven's opening, the Library offered downtown's only public restrooms, drinking fountains, and de facto day shelter.
"The impact of the Haven has been completely positive from our perspective," says Library Director John Halliday, who estimates that as many as 30 homeless people each day would use the library as refuge, particularly during snowstorms and heat waves.
"Now," says Halliday, "homeless still come to the library– but for the same reasons everyone else does: to check out books and use the computers."
One public resource that hasn't felt much relief from the Haven's opening is the police department, which over the past 10 months responded to the Haven 139 times, according to Police Chief Tim Longo, who says he doesn't believe that figure equals an increase in overall downtown police responses to the homeless.
"One could argue you'd be going someplace else to respond," he says. "It just so happens it's centralized now."
Longo also mentions a personal connection to homelessness.
"My brother was homeless for a while many years ago," he says. Seeing his late brother get involved in the nonprofit Volunteers in America, which helped get him back on his feet before his death some years later of health problems related to years of substance abuse, convinced Longo that helping the homeless become self-sufficient is the answer.
"Programs that don't just put a roof over your head but help you redevelop skills, reengage with the workforce are the most effective," he says.
Who should pay for those programs is yet another bone of contention, particularly for those who favor small government.
The Libertarian's way
"It should go back to the way it used to be," says John Munchmeyer, head of the Jefferson Area Libertarians. By Libertarian theory, the federal government should be completely removed from involvement in social services, and even the state should back off.
"Services," says Munchmeyer, "should be provided by local church and charity, so when you walk down the street, you have to look the people who gave you assistance in the eye, as opposed to getting a blind check from Washington, D.C."
That means Munchmeyer and other libertarians would tend to support locally based charities like the United Way, the Salvation Army, and the fully privately-funded Haven– and makes him strongly opposed to one of the highest-profile projects to help the helpless, the impending construction of a 60-unit Single Room Occupancy.
City Council approved a zoning law change in 2009 to enable the so-called Crossings at Fourth and Preston to be developed on the site of a former mini-mall. Funded by as much as $5 million in state tax credits over the next 10 years, the SRO will give some of the area's chronically homeless a place to live for as long as they need it. Those who are employed will pay 30 percent of their income, says Mayor Dave Norris, who says the minimum monthly rent will be $50.
"Any libertarian would be against that," says Munchmeyer. "Government crowds out real landowners," he says, adding that government subsidized housing drives down property values. He insists that getting government out of the social services business isn't cruel, and he believes private donations would fill in when the government butts out.
"What's heartless," he says, "is continuing to pour money into government programs that do more harm than good, that create an environment of dependency."
Dimock and Mayor Norris, however, point to research that shows that giving people a place to live first, without demanding employment or freedom from substances, actually improves the chances of becoming self sustaining.
"It's been proven," Dimock says. "Tough love doesn't work."
A 2006 feature in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell seems to support Dimock's claim– and goes a step further. If we really want to solve homelessness, writes Gladwell, "We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both."
Our principles, he explains, dictate fairness: it's human nature to feel that those who are given something by society for free– a home, food, medical treatment– should do something to earn it or deserve it. Looking for work and holding a job are the most basic of these efforts. But Gladwell says if we approach homelessness without emotion, as purely a financial problem, it's clear that projects like the SRO can save a community vast quantities of money even if, on the surface, it seems unfair to hand out near-free housing.
Gladwell followed one man in particular as an example: a lovable if hopeless Reno drunk named Murray Barr, who, over a decade, ran up $1 million in public services including repeated arrests for public intoxication, repeated incarcerations, and frequent emergency room visits.
"It would probably have been cheaper," Gladwell concludes, "to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment."
Dimock says the number of chronically homeless in Charlottesville follows the Reno model in that most homeless in Charlottesville have recently become homeless, and won't remain that way for long. Dimock estimates that less than 60 people living in Charlottesville, Albemarle and the surrounding counties are "chronically homeless," and that this group is using 80 percent of the resources. If you place them permanently in a living situation where they're less likely to suffer injury or illness from exposure to the elements– or to be arrested for public intoxication– the community saves money.
The SRO may also help open up other low cost housing options, a pressing need since the Charlottesville public housing projects– despite all the complaints levied against them– have waitlists.
What do they think?
It's easy to launch heated debate about the best way to deal with the homeless: where they should stay, who should pay for them, should they have to search for jobs 6 or 8 hours a day? Should they be allowed to beg on the Mall?
But what do the homeless think? On a late November morning, just a few days before the cold snap, the Haven is jumping. Small groups gather, smoking cigarettes and chatting on the walk leading up to the door. Inside, approximately a dozen people fill the first floor space– using computers, reading, watching the large flatscreen television, sleeping.
"Help is here if you want to help yourself," says Martin Taylor, a George Mason University graduate who recently became homeless following the loss of his job and the end of his marriage. Taylor says looking for work is a priority for many at the Haven, but it's made harder by felony convictions that can limit job options. Taylor and several others interviewed had drug convictions that upended otherwise successful lives with marriages and careers. Still, Taylor says, with a college degree and years of work experience– as a realtor at one time and most recently as a surveyor– he's hopeful his situation is temporary. Others there may struggle longer.
Bobby Wynkoop says his addictions have landed him in prison on and off for much of his adult life. Now 45, he says, his father was his safety net when he'd be released, without a home or job. But when his father died three years ago, he lost that refuge.
"I"m honestly trying to do the right thing," says Wynkoop, who works as a handyman but isn't making enough money to secure a permanent home.
Taylor says his experiences staying in shelters and spending time at the Haven have motivated him to work toward a career helping others who are homeless and he intends to go back to school for a degree in social work.
"When something happens and a person loses their home and their livelihood," says Taylor, "they lose their motivation, their self-worth and their desire to succeed."
Wynkoop agrees, and he says the Haven is helping fill in for the family he no longer has.
"I don't think he really understands what he's done for us," he says of Haven funder Shadyac, offering his only suggestion for improvement. "A better name," he notes earnestly, "would have been Heaven."
If attorney Fogel and Ice Park owner Brown reached an impasse over the proposed ad, Brown says he doesn't want to be misunderstood as someone who lacks sympathy for the less fortunate, but he believes the Haven and other homeless organizations will find greater support if they're willing to work with and accommodate "the needs of the broader community as a whole," including business owners who fear losing customers due to the presence of panhandlers on the Mall. Fogel says he has no problem with suggesting giving to the organizations that serve the homeless, as the ad encouraged, but he says focusing on punishing an already impoverished class of people isn't the answer.
"Everyone ought to conclude the social services need more money, but not at exclusion of giving to individuals," he says. "We've got to be doing both, and we've got to be looking at underlying causes of homelessness. In the richest society that has ever existed on earth, we have 15 percent of the population living below the poverty line. That's an outrageous indictment of our society."
Dimock says she hopes the community will continue to discuss the issue of homelessness and the ways a community can approach the problem– from ad campaigns to ordinances to volunteering their time or allotting money.
"There's a mythology people tell themselves so they can not have to respond in a more full fledged human way," she says. "The homeless," she notes, "are not that different from any one of us."
Correction: Charlottesville's SRO will not provide free housing but will require a minimum $50 monthly payment, which– if necessary– will be covered by other social service organizations or through private donations.– ed.
Martin Taylor, Theresa Thompson, Ariel Morton, and Bobby Wynkoop stand outside the Haven, the nearly-year-old day shelter funded by film director and UVA grad Tom Shadyac
Albert "Buck" Clatterbuck asks for donations on the Downtown Mall in late November.
"This is a class of people who are not going to be in a good position to defend themselves," says Jeff Fogel, an attorney who opposed the expansion of the city's panhandling ordinance. Of begging, he says, "People have a constitutional right to engage in this conduct. This is the reality of America."
"Most of the homeless have lost their social support systems," says Kaki Dimock, head of the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless. "It's a lot to face emotionally."
Patsy Walsh-Burger, left, with Darnell Morris and Darnell Morris Jr., volunteers in Kay's Kitchen at the Haven, where the homeless hone culinary skills for future employment and use fresh ingredients to make breakfast daily.
Donna Griner became homeless after her September release from prison. She says she now works two jobs, but with her husband in the hospital, she's been unable to make ends meet and now stays at PACEM shelters.
Haven client Bruce Brown smiles on the Downtown Mall and says he's often called "Al Pacino" for his resemblance to the famous actor.
New Charlottesville Ice Park owner Mark Brown worked with Downtown Business Association honcho Bob Stroh and Haven head Kaki Dimock to come up with an ad campaign that would have discouraged giving directly to panhandlers and diverted funds to the organizations that serve them. Controversy ensued.
FILE PHOTO BY TOM DALY