Like an experienced football tackler, he came at an angle, out of the shadows of a city storefront’s awning with virtually no warning. With no way to avoid his advance, he pounced.
“Hey man, can I have some money? Anything’ll do.” He offered no pleasantries first. No explanation as to his need. When politely told no, he began to walk off to try his luck elsewhere.
When asked to stop and talk a moment, he offered that his name was Alex, and that he’s a 38-year-old from Charlotte who has been in Asheville for about eight months. He said he intended to use whatever money he could get this day for beer and some food. He added he is sometimes homeless, unless he can get a cheap motel room by doing a quick job here and there doing menial temporary work in landscaping or construction “or whatever.” He said he came here from Charlotte, “because the damn Mexicans and illegal immigrants are taking all my kind of work there.”
Thanked for his time, he received some spare change and best wishes—and one last question: What did he think of the dark metal box atop a pole just down the street and across from Pritchard Park—a box for people to give money to local aid agencies instead of directly to panhandlers and the homeless?
“Aw shit,” he said. “I reckon it’s a nice idea, but it ain’t going to stop people asking for money, if that’s what you mean. If all these rich people downtown want to put their money in there, that’s fine. But the people I’ve met on the streets ain’t going to give up that easy, that’s for damn sure.”
No mean streets
Dwight Butner, the architect of the local Spare Change for Real Change program, doesn’t delude himself that the collection boxes will end panhandling, much less homelessness. Butner, a board member of the Asheville Downtown Association and leader of its social issues task force on panhandling, says what it will do is complement the city’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness initiative. Further, he says, the boxes are a positive way to address the very real problem of aggressive panhandling downtown, a practice that is illegal but difficult to enforce.
“The collections have run about what we expected them to, which is not a lot,” he says. “The goal was not to collect a lot of money. The real goal was to collect what we could and recruit businesses and organizations to match it [on an annual basis].” Butner says the association’s charitable foundation, which he will soon be heading, oversees the program and is looking to recruit at least 50 to 100 matching members.
Butner says the five boxes downtown have collected upward of $400 since being installed in mid-summer. “And I expect we’ll get more donations between now and Christmas. … Historically, Nashville has usually collected the most in its program, about $2,000 a year. It doesn’t generate a whole lot of money, but if you get 50 people matching the $2,000, you’ve got a couple hundred thousand dollars to be devoted to addressing social ills.”
As for reducing panhandling, any assessment of the program’s effectiveness is bound to be anecdotal at best, he says. But it does seem to be having at least some impact. For instance, the volume of negative letters sent from visitors to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce concerning panhandling has declined since the boxes went up, he says.
All monies collected and matched will be parceled out to local homeless-relief and aid agencies that apply for the funds and are able to meet certain criteria, which are being finalized. The first payments could start going out early next year, Butner estimates, though most of the money to be doled out will come from $11,000 donated by the ADA to the program from sales of wristbands at Downtown After Five. Now that his failed campaign for City Council is over, he says he plans to spend a great deal more of his time shepherding the program and recruiting match donors. Butner also is the owner of downtown restaurant Vincenzo’s Ristorante, in addition to his many civic activities.
The boxes, which were made for the ADA by a West Asheville welder, are located across from Pritchard Park on College Street, along Biltmore Avenue across from Barley’s Taproom, in Pack Square, outside the Civic Center and at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and Walnut Street.
Despite early fears that the boxes would be targets for vandals, thieves, and aggrieved panhandlers, Butner says the reaction to the boxes has been positive so far, with virtually no incidents, aside from some people using the boxes to dispose of cigarettes and other trash. “We’ve had surprisingly little vandalism,” he says. “We were expecting a lot of backlash against them, but really they’ve been accepted pretty well. I’ve had to paint them once or twice … but all in all it’s been pretty good … . It’s been cool.”
Oh, the irony of it all
Not all local homeless advocates think it’s so cool, however. One such critic is Asheville Homeless Network President Gerald L. “Moss” Bliss. His group has inquired about the availability of funds, but so far has been stymied because of the lack of a finalized application process.
But more than that, he says, is the fact that the initiative—well-intentioned or not—seems to send a mixed message. While not opposed to the program, Bliss says it all seems a little cockeyed.
“The Asheville Downtown Association caused the city to pass what I believe is an unconstitutional panhandling ordinance—and now they give themselves the right to legally panhandle,” he explains. “They’re not even taking applications from the organizations they are theoretically going to give the money to. So, we don’t know enough to be totally against it, but it’s a negative thing the way it started.
“We all pretty much think it’s silly that the people that need the money can’t panhandle for it, but the businesses that don’t need money can,” Bliss adds. “They could just as easily be donating to these organizations instead of collecting money from passersby.”
And while Bliss commends Butner for allowing the Asheville Homeless Network to put a collection jar in Vincenzo’s in the past, “not a single one of his patrons put any money in it,” he says. “Mr. Butner seems to have some good ideas, but they seem to be shortcutting the ideas that existed before. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, only time will tell.”