How is Asheville addressing panhandling?

Panhandling sign
HELP WANTED: This sign was found near the Interstate 240 overpass across Broadway Street. The location is just north of the downtown "high-traffic zone" where panhandling is banned. Photo by Carmela Caruso

Froggy, as he likes to be called, sits on the corner of Merrimon Avenue and the Interstate 240 offramp in 82-degree heat holding a small cardboard sign. “Homeless,” it reads.

He’s hoping to make money to take his 11-year-old daughter back-to-school shopping. Froggy is 63 years old and says he’s been panhandling for 15 years. On a typical day, he says, he might make $25, $50 if he’s lucky.

“Don’t have a steady income. Don’t have enough money,” Froggy says, when asked why he’s been raising money this way for so long. Although aware of the services available to homeless people in Asheville, he says he doesn’t need them. Panhandling has become a way of life.

Froggy is not alone. On sidewalks across Asheville, in all types of weather, people can be seen holding signs and asking passersby for money.

“They’re essentially fundraising for their daily needs,” says Michael DeSerio, outreach manager at Homeward Bound. “A person who has nothing and is in a desperate place — it’s usually a last resort to do panhandling. … When people get this desperate, it is a sign that there’s something broken systemically.”

Support systems for the area’s homeless population have been under increasing stress. According to Buncombe County’s annual point-in-time count, even as shelter capacity decreased by nearly 12% from 2021 to 2022, homelessness rose by 21%, with unsheltered homelessness doubling over the same period.

In response, the city of Asheville has partnered with the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness on a nearly $73,000 consulting project to better understand the issue. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer says the work, funded by the Dogwood Health Trust, will help the city address what she calls the “crisis of unsheltered homelessness.” The project is currently in phase one, with findings and recommendations expected to be presented in January.

Some local residents have wondered if amendments to the city’s panhandling laws might be part of that effort after Council member Sage Turner asked for input on the topic in the Asheville Politics Facebook group in July. Turner didn’t respond to Xpress requests for comment by press time, but Manheimer says no such changes are on the table.

It’s the law

While current city ordinances place some restrictions on the practice of panhandling, in most instances it is a legal means of making money. As City Attorney Brad Branham explains, “[Panhandling] is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. However, local governments are permitted to regulate it in order to ensure the safety of the general public as well as the individuals engaging in the activity.”

Asheville law restricts people from accosting, intimidating, threatening, using profanity or otherwise forcing a person to provide money. An individual who is panhandling may not solicit within 20 feet of a financial institution or ATM, in an outdoor dining area, while riding or waiting for public transit, when under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol or after dark. Branham encourages anyone who “experiences unwanted and aggressive behavior in these situations to report the issue to the city.”

Panhandling is also forbidden in designated “high-traffic zones.” Those areas include all of Biltmore Village and a roughly 0.3-square-mile section of downtown covering most streets east of French Broad Avenue and north of Hilliard Avenue. Violations are misdemeanors under state law, punishable by a fine of up to $50, which may be waived if the offender “provides proof of a good-faith effort to seek assistance to address any underlying factors related to unemployment, homelessness, mental health or substance abuse that might relate to the person’s ability to comply with the local ordinance.”

Bill Davis, spokesperson for the Asheville Police Department, says police had received 122 calls for panhandling this year as of Sept. 26, the majority of which were requests for wellness checks out of concern for those in need. Responding officers attempt to connect those in crisis with community resources, he says.

Davis adds that while most calls are for individual welfare, others “deal with complaints about panhandlers impeding the flow of traffic or knocking on windows and getting too close to vehicles.” He says that “only a small number dealt with the concern of aggressive panhandlers” but did not provide specific data when asked.

DeSerio with Homeward Bound, who also responds to calls about homelessness from the community, says “the biggest complaints come from people owning their own businesses” who don’t want individuals soliciting, sleeping or otherwise hanging out by their entrances. He sympathizes with those concerns, but he doesn’t think stricter laws will deter unhoused individuals from trying to get their basic needs met.

“There has to be another solution,” he says. “Because no matter if it’s against the law or not against the law, it’s still going to occur. People that are desperate are going to do it anyway, even if it means a night in jail or an arrest.”

Making change

Whether giving cash to panhandlers helps or leads to more harm has been hotly debated. Most homeless services advocates recommend giving in other ways.

“Sharing money with people who ask may be a kindness in the moment, but it doesn’t facilitate real solutions to homelessness,” says Emily Ball, the city of Asheville’s homeless strategy division manager. “It’s important to engage respectfully and to remember that people asking for money are in crisis and need support, but we encourage directing resources to organizations that can provide services that will sustainably resolve those crises.”

DeSerio emphasizes the importance of empathy. He admits it’s possible that some on the streets may be trying to make money dishonestly — Davis says APD isn’t aware of any “organized rings” of panhandlers in the area —  but he says the vast majority of those individuals are struggling and truly in need.

“We’ve all been in desperate times before or making decisions from a place of chronic stress,” DeSerio says. “We might have a bad day and spend our last dollar on a beer.”

Still, he says offering food or water is better than giving money to people who are panhandling. DeSerio agrees with Ball that donating to local organizations is the best option for addressing systemic issues. But he suggests there’s a simpler way that anyone in the community can begin to enact change.

“Stopping to say hello and acknowledging people. Seeing them, versus, ‘I don’t know what to do, so I’m going to pretend this person is not there.’ I think that definitely goes a long way,” says DeSerio.

“The biggest thing people need, besides a solid roof over their head, is community. And, in fact, that’s bigger than the roof,” DeSerio continues. “And if they have people in their life — whether it be strangers or whether it be familiar faces — that can show them that there’s still hope, and community, and somebody who cares, then I feel like that’s a real platform for change for some of these individuals.”


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10 thoughts on “How is Asheville addressing panhandling?

  1. Lou Bissette

    Panhandling and homelessness is becoming a very serious problem in downtown Asheville. Although the law prohibits certain types of aggressive panhandling, since there are very few, if any, police officers on the ground in downtown, realistically there are no consequences for those that violate those ordinances.

  2. Brooke

    I find it strange the Mountain Xpress is linking to a firewalled Facebook Group. Is it normal to link to a private webpage that requires authentication?

    • Hi Brooke, thanks for the question. While Asheville Politics is a private Facebook group, meaning that only members can post and view posts, it’s also “visible,” meaning that it’s publicly discoverable. It’s also newsworthy in that it contains the statements of many local elected officials, including Sage Turner in this case. For those reasons, we feel that it’s appropriate to link, especially as used in this case as evidence for a point in the story.

      • Enlightened Enigma

        Uh, no that group of nasty intolerance is not publicly discoverable. Rich Lee used to run it.

  3. MV

    There are regular folks in affordable neighborhoods who have asked the city to protect them for the very reason stated below: Community. Whether one is paying off a mortgage or experiencing homelessness, it’s this intangible ‘community’ that is so intrinsically valuable and often so neglected by elected officials and out-of-town developers.

    “The biggest thing people need, besides a solid roof over their head, is community. And, in fact, that’s bigger than the roof,” DeSerio continues.

  4. Luella

    Hmmm, interestingly the “high traffic zones” named correlate with high tourist-foot-traffic zones. Out of sight, out of mind? I-240 on/off ramps and Asheville Mall area are very traffic. Methinks, someone is playing games here.

  5. Kathy

    There are big cities that have experienced a lot of homelessness but cleaned it up. Has Asheville connected to other cities to see how they’ve fixed the problem?
    In my experience, I know there are different reasons for homelessness. There are some people that prefer the lifestyle. They don’t want rules to follow. They’ll move to cities that are known to be open to having the homeless in their cities. These cities also have free programs for them.
    I personally know someone who prefers to panhandle in Hawaii for the climate and “good” money.
    How would you acclimate people like my friend into community if they’re aren’t interested?

    • Richard B.

      Kathy hit the nail on the head. It is a chosen lifestyle. Unlike the thinking of Homeward Bound staffer, Mr. DeSerio, a closer examination of those panhandling often shows them getting into a nearby fairly late model vehicle after their “shift”. If this were during the Great Depression, or other crisis period of high unemployment due to a scarcity of jobs, then some of Mr. DeSerio’s comments would be more valid. With help wanted signs outside practically every business, plus incredible bonuses offered for simply signing on, there is no logical argument for being unable to earn a “steady income”, or for being “in desperate straits”. None. There was an article in the Xpress couple of years ago from a homeless man who was educated, obviously bright, who wrote about his choice to be homeless, as many of his street comrades had also chosen, and to back off from the empathetic citizens who were trying to change his lifestyle.
      Kathy is right, these folks move to where they are not only tolerated, but encouraged by do-good citizens bursting with a desire to feel like an exemplary person (perhaps seeking redemption for some undesirable past behaviors?). Asheville offers the ideal setting for the homeless career person. And the news travels fast along their national network.

  6. Taxpayer

    Whatever Asheville is doing it’s not enough to keep a steady stream of new homeless people from coming here. We’re too small to care for homeless from all over.

    • Richard B.

      What the good citizens of Asheville are doing, tacitly encourage by the city Administration officers, is more than enough to keep a steady incoming stream of homeless lifestyle folks.
      And that is just the opposite of what needs to be done.
      Very similar to many large towns with a majority of Liberal do-gooders, Asheville has become a popular destination for those homeless career seekers with the added benefit of being a fairly temperate climate year-round. With so many empathetic folks living here, looking beyond the obvious – that the large majority of the homeless could get regular jobs with ease – and ready for that desirable warm glow of being a good dooby, – Asheville has become a paradise for the professional class of those who prefer to be unencumbered by having no rent or mortgage payments.

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