Panhandling panned: No more Mall driving, either

It's happened to Jim Tolbert at Bizou, at Miller's, at Rapture, and at Blue Light Grill. While Tolbert was dining outside at those restaurants, someone came up to ask him for money and it wasn't the waiter.

Mayor Maurice Cox was also asked for money a couple of times while he was sitting outside at a restaurant on the Downtown Mall. "You really feel vulnerable," he says.

In a series of meetings that Tolbert, Charlottesville's director of neighborhood services, had with downtown merchants and vendors, these two major complaints arose: panhandling and driving on the Mall. As a result, City Council adopted an ordinance April 21 banning "aggressive" panhandling and forbidding vendors from parking or driving on the pedestrian thoroughfare.

City officials admit the new ordinance targets two or three people whose panhandling practices cause consternation and one vendor who continues to load and unload his wares on the Mall after other vendors agreed not to.

"There's a concern that a couple of panhandlers are overly aggressive," says City Councilor Kevin Lynch. "We're not trying to crack down on panhandling. Most of the people who do it are pretty respectful."

The city defines aggressive panhandling as making physical contact, accosting anyone seated at an outdoor café, or asking for money within 15 feet of an automated teller machine or bank.

"It's only a couple of them," says Mall regular Phil Gianniny. As for the new law, "I think it's a waste of time," he says. "There are better things to worry about. People can handle it, and scaring you isn't breaking the law. I tell 'em to get a freaking job."

However, Charles Hogan, who's lived on the Mall for seven years, definitely thinks aggressive panhandling is a problem. "I can't tell you how many suburban women won't shop here," he says.

Hogan suggests an ordinance like one in Berkeley, California, that prohibits panhandlers from stopping pedestrians in motion or speaking to ask for money– but "lets them sit there with a sign."

City Councilor Rob Schilling wishes the ordinance would also ban begging at stoplights. He doesn't want Charlottesville's problem to come to resemble the situation in Santa Barbara. "I didn't want to go back there," he says, "because the panhandling was so aggressive."

Over at the Drop-In Center, a place where the homeless can shower or get mail, director Will Gallik says panhandling is part of a larger issue. "If adequate services were provided," says Gallik, "this wouldn't be as big an issue if it is an issue."

Mayor Cox agrees that Charlottesville needs better safety nets for people who are drunk or mentally ill.

"This law is the stick," he says. "We are investigating the carrot."


As for driving on the Mall, City officials acknowledge that it isn't a widespread problem, and in fact, there's only one vendor who does it regularly. City staff talked to the vendors to ask them to stop, and although the majority complied, "One or two said no– you can't make me," says Lynch.

"When people are driving at eight on a Friday night to load up their wares, it is a dangerous situation," says Joan Fenton, a business owner and co-chair of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville.

She's also concerned about wear and tear. "Structurally the Mall is falling apart," she says.

Most Mall vendors don't view the lack of easy access to load and unload as a problem. One who sells jewelry and who declined to give her name thinks that driving on the Mall is a safety issue that's only worsened if every vendor does it.

"I was concerned about creating a hardship for vendors," says Schilling. "I was told only one had a problem with it."

Schilling did see to it that the ordinance allows an exception to make sure contractors don't have to haul heavy tools up and down the Mall.

"I guess I'm the one they're talking about," says a Mall vendor who requests that his name not be used. He says he won't drive on the Mall once the new law goes into effect, but he worries about his merchandise if he has to unload it from a side street.

"The problem is if I unload half my stuff around the corner, by the time I get back with the rest, that's gone," he explains.

The penalty for driving on the Mall is a $70 fine; aggressive panhandling is a Class 3 misdemeanor with a fine not to exceed $500.

Is there any danger in making laws that target only one or two people? Jim Lark is secretary of the local Libertarians, and while he specifies he's not voicing the official party line, he says, "Those laws that target one person make us queasy."

Lark sympathizes with those who find panhandlers irritating or threatening, but he cautions that crafting laws to address behavior may have unintended consequences and criminalize types of behavior that aren't a problem. Take, for example, passing out political literature. "Plenty of people may feel accosted. Is that something different from asking for money?" he asks.

City officials don't share Lark's concern. "A problem is a problem," says Tolbert. "It's against the law to murder, and only a small segment does that."

Lynch sees the ordinance as not so much about targeting one or two individuals. "It's behavior that goes over a line of civility," he says. [See news story about Councilors Lynch and Schilling debating civility.–editor]

Someone asking for spare change is one thing, says Lynch, but, "Grabbing you or asking at a restaurant where you can't get away, those things cross the line."

Mayor Cox looks at the ordinance within the bigger picture of the Downtown Mall. "I see these as problems of almost too successful a pedestrian environment. Maybe that's a good problem to have."

Now it's just a matter of getting the word out to those two or three aggressive panhandlers next time they pass through town.


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