Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Contrary to ordinance, panhandling legal in city limits: Staff pushes for nonprofit support over handouts

Panhandling is seen as one of the biggest problems facing the downtown district (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
Panhandling is considered legal per a 2015 court ruling, but the city’s ordinance states otherwise. City staff is working on a plan to mitigate issues related to panhandling and presented initial findings to council Monday. (Port City Daily/file)

WILMINGTON — “The goal is not to feed the bears, but provide services so the bear will not have to feed off what I give him but learn to feed himself,” council member Clifford Barnett said at Monday’s city council agenda briefing.

He was using a theological parable while discussing panhandling — which council said has increased as the population has grown (though a spokesperson for the city clarified it does not have a way to track the quantity). Barnett was summing up multifaceted issues at its root cause, as well as the diverse approach it requires to tackle.

To help mitigate issues related to panhandling — such as litter and safety of solicitors that post up in medians amid congested traffic, the latter of which concerned Mayor Bill Saffo — the city is looking toward initiatives encouraging residents to donate to agencies that can help instead of giving directly to individuals. Deputy city manager Thom Moton said he thinks it will deter soliciting if people are handing out less money. 

“A caring community like ours begets more panhandling,” Moton said. “[It] has a tendency to self perpetuate.”

While the city currently bans panhandling in its limits, it’s protected by the First Amendment as free speech. A federal court case negates Wilmington’s ordinance, which is “to protect both pedestrians and motorists,” stating no one can walk, stand or sit on the street or median to ask for contributions from drivers.

Per 2015’s U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit case, Reynolds v. Middleton, local governments can no longer ban panhandling outright without “meeting its burden of proof.” The court ruled roads and sidewalks are deemed public space.

Law enforcement can’t cite anyone for posting up at these locations unless their actions become aggressive.

“Now is the time to go back and amend the panhandling ordinance,” City Attorney John Joye said. “The public likes to make me aware we already banned it. But we can’t.”

The city has received numerous emails from residents complaining about the uptick of begging in heavily congested areas. Joye recommended during the agenda briefing for the city to take a serious look at reevaluating its current codes.

An April U.S. Supreme Court case, Austin v. Reagan, put even more of a burden on local governments. The city’s ordinance would have to change to be very “narrow and specific” to have legal standing, Joye explained.

“In order to have an ordinance the courts would support, we have to show in our area we tried these non-speech related laws and they were inadequate to meet the legitimate end we’re after,” he said Monday. “We have no data and evidence to back it up right now.”

One Market Street homeowner wrote to council members last month about a “crew” of panhandlers “destroying” his neighborhood. He said they leave behind piles of trash and are making neighbors feel unsafe.

“In the last two days I’ve spoken with two groups of tourists,” the man wrote to city and county leadership. “Unsolicited, each group complained about and commented on the huge number of drug addicted, predatory homeless and pan-handling con-men! Each group felt unsafe! Each group would never return to Wilmington!”

Law enforcement can hold people accountable for infractions such as dumping or littering on public property; sitting, standing or lying on the street so as to impede traffic; loitering for drug activity or disorderly conduct; and obstructing or impeding rights-of-way.

Wilmington Police Department Assistant Chief David Oyler said WPD plans to allocate additional resources to enforcing these existing laws and focus on high-traffic locations.

“We’ll need to be very specific and surgical about how we go about it,” Oyler told council. 

City staff have been researching ways to combat the issues. It presented to council Monday a program to increase funding for social services and encourage residents to give to nonprofits that support homelessness and mental health services over individuals.

Through discussions with leadership in Greenville, S.C., Moton said the city is working to mimic its initiative, a regional campaign, “Keep the change, be the change,” which launched in the last year. Though not set in stone, part of the City of Wilmington’s plan could include installing signage for donations. Early talks indicated support for Cape Fear Council of Governments (COG), which oversees the Tri-County Homeless Interagency Council.

COG is funded by state and federal money, as well as the city, which budgeted $65,000 for the entity in fiscal year 2023, up from $50,000 over the past two years.

If the new panhandling initiative is approved by council, signs would be posted throughout the county but also at the most impacted intersections: Oleander at Independence and College, Wooster at 16th and 17th, Third at Dawson, Randall Parkway at Kerr Avenue to name a few.

The signs would state, “There’s a better way to give,” and include a QR code for passersby to scan in order to donate.

Moton said by donating to nonprofits, it “improves the social support system” that in turn benefits more than one individual, leading to a more sustainable approach.

COG annually evaluates the homeless population, including location and how long people have been on the streets. Saffo suggested the same organization could evaluate panhandlers.

Council member Charlie Rivenbark was skeptical about identifying the needs for individuals who are seen panhandling and requested more information about who they are and why they need money, specifically that help get to the root of the problems.

“I recognize, immediately, a lot of people who camp by the library,” he explained. “I know them, talk to them, but I don’t see them at the corners. One reason, I know two of them, specifically, receive disability.”

“I’m not so sure everyone we see on the street corners is homeless or suffering from mental illness,” Rivenbark added.

Recent reports nationwide indicate other cities are facing similar situations of individuals panhandling as a job and source of income. Baltimore council just discussed seeing an uptick in squeegee panhandling at intersections, while Jacksonville, Florida’s council has received 1,500 complaints and is working with state and federal agencies on legislation to reduce the problem.

One Wilmington resident emailed city leadership suggesting many of the panhandlers are scammers. “It is a well-organized and staffed effort complete with assigned shifts, transportation to the assigned corners, and designated relief to ensure the sites are covered throughout the day,” he wrote. “If only the same dedication and logistical support could be applied to legal employment.”

He said the night before writing his email he encountered nine panhandlers covering intersections from Market to Kerr to Military Cutoff.

“How can the Council Members not see that same thing and act with both compassion and outrage?” he added.

By funneling funds through nonprofits, Moton said he hoped to pick out the people who are actually in dire straits. 

“The answer is not to turn a blind eye and do nothing and sit on our hands,” council member Luke Waddell said. “We can better leverage our dollar by donating to a constellation of nonprofits who are well-equipped to care for these folks and ensure the people who really need it are receiving it.”

City staff has been directed to create a polished plan to present to city council.

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