The Overlook with Matt Peiken

Mishandling Panhandling | Chase Davis of Mountain Xpress

October 09, 2023 Matt Peiken Episode 95
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
Mishandling Panhandling | Chase Davis of Mountain Xpress
Show Notes Transcript

You’d have to be a shut-in not to notice the prevalence of panhandling in Asheville. It’s become so visible along Interstate on-ramps and off-ramps that, early this summer, a committee of city councilwomen proposed penalizing sympathetic motorists who stop to give money to panhandlers.

A public outcry compelled them to walk back that proposal and soften other language in a pending update to the city’s panhandling ordinance. But Asheville’s civic, business and tourism leaders still see a crisis of perception and an economic cost connected to panhandling.

Today's guest is Chase Davis, a relative newcomer to the reporting staff at Mountain Xpress. We talk through his recent reporting on panhandling and efforts to stem the tide. We break down the differences between panhandling, vagrancy and the unhoused. We also get into the challenges for a city striving to balance empathy with solutions and contrast Asheville to the town of LaGrange, Ga., where Davis last reported on these same issues.

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Chase Davis: I came from LaGrange, Georgia. I was born and raised in LaGrange my whole life. It's a small little farm town and I worked as a reporter there for about four years. Before I moved up here right on so 

Matt Peiken: it seems like right from the beginning you stepped into the Panhandling and homeless community tell me about your experiences just in how you started out covering that beat.

Chase Davis: From the get go I came to realize just how important both addressing homelessness was Not only to, city officials, but also to members of the public. When this panhandling ordinance improvement came out. It was interesting to see all the pushback that we received from the community even though it might not necessarily be the most drastic of changes just to see, the community rally behind the homeless population was really interesting and something I think is definitely unique to Asheville.

Matt Peiken: Why don't you walk us through the very genesis of the team? Proposed changes from what I understand there were a portion of city council members Who wanted to see a change to this ordinance? Can you talk about what was initially? Proposed and this coalition of council members. 

Chase Davis: Absolutely. So To give you a little background on how this process works.

There's a committee that meets independently from City Council. And on this committee the reason that this panhandling ordinance came up is the ordinance needed to be updated in order to be in alignment with current federal and state law. So they weren't necessarily talking about making drastic changes initially.

It was just to update the verbiage. And the most recent City Council meetings, that's what they've done. So they've taken the verbiage and basically said, Panhandling's always been in our city ordinance it hasn't been changed for about 20 years. What they did is they added more specifying language.

Specifically they said that solicitors who are panhandling, they must be at least eight feet away from all transit stops and all people who issued solicitation. 

Matt Peiken: Was this... Language in terms of a distance from people and steering away from people who had objected to them. Was that new to the language of this ordinance?

Chase Davis: The distance, the eight feet regulation, that was the only change to the existing language of that part of the ordinance. So, The distance specificity was new, but there's always been within the ordinance to say, You can't solicit near transit stops, and you can't solicit near people who've already said no.

Matt Peiken: Now, give us a sense, even though you said the changes to the ordinance were to meet federal guidelines, was the language obsolete? Was it strictly technical, or were there things that this committee members was looking to accomplish with the panhandling ordinance that wasn't in the legislation previously, at least as they initially proposed 

Chase Davis: it.

So in their initial discussions it originally was intended just to make these technical amendments. However, there was discussion of adding additional amendments to this ordinance. One that was discussed that generated a good bit of controversy was Not only penalizing homeless people for solicitation, but also restricting drivers from giving money from their cars.

Now, since then, because of the pushback they received, as well as just a deeper understanding of the topic, they've since rescinded that, said that they don't want to include that in the ordinance at all. So they haven't made any substantial changes since the approval of the technical amendments. Do 

Matt Peiken: you think some of the impetus behind this and you're new here, so you may not have this perspective, but just from the people you've talked to, Is there a sense that panhandling is.

Either out of control or has mushroomed here in a way that people here haven't seen before you said this Panhandling ordinance has been on the books for at least decades Do you know the origins or when this panhandling ordinance even first was on the books and what has changed what might have?

precipitated wanting to Not only wanting to penalize panhandlers, but those giving to panhandlers. What, what's 

Chase Davis: changed? I think it's important to note that Asheville largely is a tourist town. And when you look at addressing not only public safety, but the way Asheville is perceived not only by residents, but also by tourists, I think addressing homelessness is a very big priority for that.

Panhandling, it's a tricky topic because on one half, they are protected under their First Amendment rights to solicit for money if they so desire, but on the other side, it can be a public safety threat. If you're on a busy median and there's someone in the road that can pose a risk. So I think the reason that this sort of came up in discussion is twofold.

I think the first is... From a tourism perspective, they want the streets and they want the, especially the downtown and the historic billmore village area. They want those areas to look clean, to look safe and for tourists to feel safe in those areas. From a public safety perspective, it is. It's really dangerous for individuals to be on these busy medians especially, during a rush hour season, which is typically when panhandlers come out is during that, 5 o'clock rush hour, that 8 a.

m. rush hour. I really think they're not only trying to keep panhandlers safe, but also they're trying to make, The rest of the community and tourists who come here also feel comfortable and safe as well 

Matt Peiken: I know there's been some a lot of feedback from our business community and this is predates your time here But you know probably about six months ago Maybe there was a coalition of downtown business owners and managers who pled with law enforcement and civic leaders to do something about the homeless situation and the panhandling situation they tried to distinguish the homeless from panhandlers in a sense.

They were, that being homeless in itself, they were trying to say is not a crime, but they thought the panhandling was getting out of control. From your observation and from talking to people, is it a bigger problem now than it has been before? 

Chase Davis: I don't necessarily think that panhandling is a bigger problem.

I think it's gotten a lot more visible with these discussions around downtown safety and the visibility of the homeless and the unhoused. I think that panhandling has naturally come up as the next sort of aspect of that conversation. I don't necessarily think panhandling has gotten... That being said, I have only been here a couple months, but just talking with business owners talking with members of the community, panhandling's always been prevalent here.

It's always prevalent in bigger cities. So I don't necessarily think it's a worse issue more so as it's been brought to the light with this topic around downtown safety 

Matt Peiken: certainly the perception You know there's an old saying perception is reality that what people perceive that's their truth And a lot of people perceive that there's more panhandling more unhoused people on the streets right now.

Can you distinguish? between Panhandling and busking busking is such a prevalent aspect of life in downtown. It's almost part of the signature of our downtown. Is there a distinction legally between busking and panhandling? 

Chase Davis: So technically, yes, there is a distinction. Panhandlers under current ordinance, those are people who explicitly ask for money, whether that's with a sign, whether they're asking directly.

Buskers, it is more of a performative art. And while they typically do have some way for you to donate, they're not actively asking for money. And I think that distinction is important. Now, under the current ordinance, a busker still cannot be on a busy median, just like a panhandler. So there is a distinction there, but I also think that when it comes to the public safety side of it, they are treated the same.

Matt Peiken: So you just made a distinction though that, and I think it's really important, the difference between overtly asking for money and not overtly asking for money. Performing and putting out a guitar case or a tip jar is different in the eyes of the law, not just in terms of Perception, but you're saying even legally just the request for money puts you in a different legal plane 

Chase Davis: It does.

Yes. So when you're doing a performative art as a busker does well, yes, they are asking for money It's a very indirect and it's not directly imposing on other people and I think When you look at the current ordinance, it's very clear that it says, You must back away and stop soliciting for funds if the person has elicited a negative response to your request.

Since buskers aren't making a formal request, they're just performing. There, there is a bit of a difference there. 

Matt Peiken: Now you talked about how initially council members on this committee Wanted to address not just the panhandlers, but the people giving, but yet they walked that back in the wake of public feedback.

Give us a sense of that feedback, and did that surprise people, the level of negative feedback to that? 

Chase Davis: I definitely think it was surprising more so for council than it was for the public. Asheville as a whole is a very giving community, to make that restriction was devastating to a lot of people and they felt like their charitable actions were being restricted, which it was never the intention, but 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, give us, tell us what was proposed in terms of addressing people giving to panhandlers. What were council members who were on this committee talking about doing before they 

Chase Davis: walked it back? So there was no formal proposal, however the discussion being made was... Maybe also saying that it's not okay for someone in a moving vehicle once they're stopped to then give funds to a panhandler.

And the reason that they came up with this ordinance, it was initially to target the public safety aspect of it. When... You're on a busy median and if, let's say, you stop to give funds to the unhoused, not only are you impeding traffic, but if someone's not paying attention or the light turns green, then all of a sudden you become a safety risk to the people around you.

So I think that was their intention when they proposed this. Now, once they received the public feedback of, no, you can't restrict our charitable giving they took that and they realized that this wasn't, Also, exclusively addressing public safety, but it was also pushing against charitable giving, which was never their intention, which I believe is why they've decided to backtrack on that one.

You know what's interesting to me 

Matt Peiken: about that? I think you talked about how Asheville is a progressive city and they want to be able to give and not penalize that. At the same token, there are so many people who are baffled about what to do. These same people, I imagine, are baffled about what to do about our very visible, unhoused and panhandling element in this city.

Do you think there's a contradiction at play here between On one hand, wanting something to be done about that, not wanting to encourage more public facing element of panhandling and the unhoused, and yet at the same time the notion we don't want to penalize where they are in their lives, and quite understandably, are we at a real sticking point between our discomfort In what we're seeing on the streets and our ability to do anything about it, politically.

Chase Davis: I think it's a very tricky subject to address because on one hand, Homelessness and the unhoused, visibly it's not what you want your city to see, it's not what you want tourists to see. But on the other hand these are people who are struggling. I think city council, community members alike, they're trying to find this balance of Yes, we want to appeal to that tourism sector and that, that's a major part of our economy.

But also, we don't want to do that by necessarily punishing homeless people. We want to try to address it. By addressing the root causes of homelessness and you see, you know, with a lot of these community initiatives to help the unhoused we have multiple non profits in the area that are trying to address this issue.

That, That really is the focus, not necessarily punishing the homeless, but trying to solve the homelessness crisis as a whole. 

Matt Peiken: And you mentioned how this is happening all over the country, a lot of metropolitan areas are dealing with a proliferation of panhandling. You know, even the people at the Tourism Development Authority are saying Our tourism is being hurt by this.

Business owners are saying we're being hurt by this. You're saying council ultimately just trimmed around the margins of this ordinance That nothing really changed. Are we just going to have status quo for a while and where's law enforcement even, are they even enforcing panhandling laws or we have a, we have such a shortage of police officers in this community.

Is this just status quo now going forward? 

Chase Davis: To address your point on the law enforcement, I think panhandling, they enforce it to the best they can. As you mentioned, law enforcement the A. P. D. Is currently operating at about 40 percent of capacity. And our city attorney even mentioned, when it comes to ordinances like this, they're not going to be as strictly enforced just because law enforcement has to prioritize, big ticket crimes, and that needs to be their focus, which I think is important to note.

When it comes to the Panhandling Ordinance, I think they want to make changes, but they want to make them in a way that it's not punitive. They're not out to get the unhoused. That's not their goal. They want to address homelessness, but they want to address it from more of a... Reformative and repairing nature rather than a punitive and punishing one. 

Matt Peiken: But an ordinance by the nature of what an ordinance is, it's a legal barrier, right? It defines legally what anybody can do in this town, an ordinance, whether it's on your personal property. Or what you can do downtown or in, on public land. You've been covering the homeless community beyond just the panhandling element, correct?

Absolutely. Tell me about the other range of stories you're working on around this and how they all tie together. 

Chase Davis: A big focus of what I've done since I've gotten here is we've addressed downtown safety. And when you talk about downtown safety, homelessness is one of the first things that comes up.

I think it's important to note that , there has to be a distinction between the unhoused and vagrancy. They, They don't always go together. Yes, sometimes the homelessness or the homeless do commit crimes, but you can't associate being unhoused with also being a vagrant. When it comes to how the city council is addressing this they're very clearly keeping that in mind.

They don't want. The perception to be that they think homeless people are criminals because that's not always the case sometimes, you know They just come with unfortunate circumstances and to 

Matt Peiken: be clear vagrancy itself It's not just are you a criminal or not? You're or are you not a criminal? It might just be that you're sleeping in a public doorway that can be an element of vagrancy. So talk about this. So where are we at now from what you're hearing and seeing in terms of law enforcement being involved, city, government being involved, and social services being involved, all around trying to reduce this problem. Where is your reporting taking you?

What are you looking at 

Chase Davis: right now? Right now my focus is, what are the reformative ways that we're addressing homelessness? When it comes to things like panhandling and ordinances those help to keep homelessness out of the light of the public, but it doesn't solve the root issue. A key aspect of some of my reporting that I'm working on now is talking to these agencies who are trying to solve the root causes of homelessness.

I also think when you have this conversation, you have to look at other aspects of, Asheville as well, such as affordable housing. Once we get affordable housing taken care of, that will help with homelessness as well. So, I think because it's such a multi faceted issue, looking at affordable housing, looking at safety initiatives, looking at how we're addressing drug use in the community, all of these will, Directly impact our homelessness crisis that we're facing right now.


Matt Peiken: all of these are really... Difficult challenges when you're talking about wages in this community and you're getting jobs that pay you a wage that can make you afford to live in this community. You're saying once we solve the affordable housing crisis it's astronomical this crisis and it's only going up our cost of living, at least in terms of housing itself is only going up.

Is this. A zero sum game in a way that, are more people, more and more people just going to be priced out of living here yet have nowhere else to go? 

Chase Davis: I think that while that is a possibility, I think it has to be noted that because of the scope of this issue, with the prices continually rising, With that, there's also multiple initiatives to, bring more affordable housing in.

We, we have our land use incentive grants that have really taken off recently. I do think council is making a good effort to Bring affordable housing in, but when it comes to that, it's not just our local economy that affects that exclusively, it also, inflation as a whole nationally impacts our affordable housing.

Affordable housing is a crisis, it's not just experienced in Asheville, it's just about in every metropolis right now currently, and a lot of that is coming from Once COVID happened, people started moving back into these big cities. So I think the issue that we're trying to address isn't going to be solved immediately.

It probably won't be solved within the next five years. It's going to be a long term issue, but I do think, Council is working adamantly to, make sure we bring in more affordable housing. It's just a fine balance of bringing in affordable housing, but also, encouraging that growth and development for the rest of your economy from 

Matt Peiken: what you're hearing from other people.

Now, again, we talked about how the unhoused communities in a lot of metropolitan areas, most metropolitan areas, is on the rise. Is there anything about Asheville in particular that is a magnet for people who are struggling, or are people coming here with the best of intentions and then they start to struggle once they are here and end up on street 

Chase Davis: corners?

So I think it's a fine balance of both. I think Asheville as a whole is very appealing not only do we have a lot of urban amenities, we also have a lot of natural amenities. So that's a perfect combination, especially for a younger audience who's looking to move into this area. You said natural amenities.

Yeah, we're, we're Surrounded by mountains, we have beautiful views, beautiful hiking, scenic trails. For a younger audience, for people in their 20s and 30s, those natural amenities are very important. And that's a big aspect of where people are moving to. You look here, you look in Denver, places that prioritize that natural environment.

That's a big appeal now, so I think a lot of people are moving here looking for that, as well as, the mix of urban amenities breweries, bars, restaurants, things of that nature. Once they get here, it, it tends to be a little more expensive, so I think that, that is tricky for some younger individuals, but also for people who are here.

If they've lived here their whole life, as things get more and more expensive, if they're stuck at the same job and it's not increasing their wage, it can be tricky for them to find a place that's affordable, especially with rising rents. 

Matt Peiken: Getting back to the panhandling again, I imagine you've talked to some people who were panhandling?

Is it easier to make some money here, as a, doing panhandling, I know nobody's getting rich, but is it easier here than in maybe other cities that don't have the same reputation, progressive reputation as Asheville might? Is there any of that at play? 

Chase Davis: I can't speak necessarily to if it's easier here.

I know from where I came from I came from a small town in LaGrange. It was very difficult for panhandlers to make money. I covered the homeless there. They couldn't make any money But it was also not an area known for its, progressiveness, it wasn't known for this giving culture, so I think here, because the community does rally behind homeless people and rally behind this idea of, supporting one another and helping one another, it does make it easier, but I also don't think that panhandling as a whole, and if you talk to any homeless person Today, panhandling is not a sustainable form of income for them by any stretch.

Matt Peiken: You mentioned how, just from LaGrange, comparing LaGrange to Asheville, give us a sense of the different, you said it's not easy being homeless anywhere, but certainly not in LaGrange. What did you see differently on the ground between covering, what you saw among the homeless population and the panhandling population there versus what you see in Asheville?

What's different on a day to day basis? 

Chase Davis: I think uh, important difference between the two is when you go to smaller towns like LaGrange, the one I was, I came from they address homelessness in a very punitive nature. The homeless are often frowned upon, there, there's not a lot of support systems in small towns and a lot of that's due to the fact that they are smaller, they don't have a lot of funding, but also the culture's different.

So in LaGrange, homelessness was treated very punitively. You would often see, if someone was soliciting you would see police cars going up to them and removing them. When you come to Asheville, that environment's very different. The unhoused aren't treated as, so vagrants or criminals, they're just treated as people who might be down on their luck.

So I think the culture from where I came from, which was very, punitive and aggressive towards homeless people, it's very different here because there's a much more of a supportive, empathetic nature. 

Matt Peiken: And you mentioned, tying back to the beginning of this conversation, 

the negative feedback that council members here faced on trying to tighten or expand what this ordinance might say. If this on the floor, if this happened in LaGrange, you're saying people there would have championed tightening down that, that council or law enforcement certainly would not have faced any blowback.

In fact, probably quite the 

Chase Davis: opposite. Absolutely. There, there was definitely a different culture there. And it probably would have received. A little negative feedback, but it would not have been near to the extent that it received here. 

Matt Peiken: That's, I think that's a really important distinction you're making in different communities that are struggling with the unhoused and panhandling, is that people here empathize.

There's a certain empathy. I can't, not everybody. There's certainly some large contingents of people. I see them on Facebook who are like, there's this East Asheville safety and the East EST, you know, which one I'm talking about East to me, you read that Facebook page. It's as if we're in a conservative town.

So it really depends on who you're talking about. But by and large, We seem to have a very empathetic community here toward that, and yet the people who are showing empathy are not blind to the issues that we're talking about. Is there anything that's happening in other cities that is seen as a... role model or some, there's some success that other cities are having that is not directly tied to law enforcement.

Chase Davis: So to answer your question, I think there's a fine balance between enforcing the law and making sure that, homelessness as an issue is being enforced and taken care of legally, but I think the larger, more predominant role that, that needs to be focused on is addressing the root causes and that can't necessarily be done with.

law enforcement. That has to be done with community initiatives. That has to be done with, economical initiatives as I mentioned, addressing affordable housing, things of that nature. If you look at other cities Atlanta is always an example I go to because homelessness is a very big issue in Atlanta.

They've tried multiple routes. They've gone the law enforcement route where they were very punitive against homeless people. They didn't solve the issue. You can. You can hide away homeless people and you can relocate them to different areas so they're not seen in the public eye, but It doesn't solve the root cause and eventually, a month, two months later, they're going to be right back where they were because that's the only way that they've been able to survive.

So I think the bigger, more important issue is addressing the root causes of homelessness and supporting the unhoused rather than focusing on punishing them. 

Matt Peiken: Is there anything we haven't talked about yet? in your reporting or what's coming up in terms of stories you're working on that you think is important for people to know going forward?

Chase Davis: I do think it's important to know that with the current panhandling ordinances, they haven't made any major adjustments to it. It has been technical amendments. I will say on October 10th, they are planning to discuss more expansive panhandling ordinances. They haven't necessarily specified what those are going to be.

However they have brought into the discussion of maybe we expand this ordinance further. However we're not a hundred percent sure what that's going to look like, but I do encourage, if the public is interested and they want to know about these ordinances, reach out to the city council members, come to the city council meetings.

They're great for public forums.

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