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.”
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.”