A real helping hand

Panhandling is about more than homelessness. … The homeless make up only a very small percentage of the people panhandling on our downtown streets.

I was both encouraged and disheartened by the recent feature article “Homesick: the Many Faces of Homelessness in Asheville” (Aug. 2 Xpress). On the one hand, it was gratifying to see Mountain Xpress tackle a thorny issue facing downtown Asheville. Without a balanced, broad-minded discussion of any issue, it is difficult to arrive at real solutions. Clearly, the article attempted to do this in what the paper apparently believed was a balanced way.

Two things struck me about the piece, however. First, ironically, was the narrowness of its focus. The article confined itself to quotes from the homeless, various members of the social-welfare community, the police and local-government officials, elected and otherwise. But the opinions of those residents, business owners and working people who make up the majority of downtown Asheville’s population were conspicuously absent. Many of those opinions and conclusions are embodied in a report from the city’s Downtown Social Issues Task Force, to which no reference was made.

The second thing was even more disturbing. The article’s title referred to homelessness, but in reality, the topic was panhandling — or, more specifically, our local panhandling ordinances and their impact on the homeless. Panhandling, however, is about more than homelessness. As a matter of fact, the homeless make up only a very small percentage of the people panhandling on our downtown streets.

It does a disservice to the homeless community to suggest that homeless people are the only ones panhandling. And it does a disservice to our local government to suggest that the poor are the only people being regulated by these ordinances. The report of the task force’s Panhandling Subcommittee was only one small part of a comprehensive plan to address many social challenges, but it clearly drew that distinction. It does not help the debate to have it narrowly framed or to approach the issue of panhandling exclusively from the perspective of homelessness.

Over the last 20 years, downtown Asheville has grown into one of the most attractive, desirable urban centers in the Southeast. The hustle, bustle, color and vibrancy appeal to members of all socioeconomic groups, races, religions and ethnic cultures. As a result, Asheville has drawn more than its fair share of the economically compromised and disadvantaged members of our society. There’s really nothing unusual about that: We are an attractive place to live. And since the dawn of human history, urban areas have had to deal with the consequences of poverty, drug-and-alcohol abuse, mental illness and despair among portions of the community. What’s unusual is the effort our community has made to address the consequences of our popularity thoughtfully and compassionately.

Panhandling is ultimately an economic enterprise that can be prompted by a variety of factors. First are the people who are down on their luck, those limited by poverty and circumstances. The article did a nice job of illustrating and giving examples of just this kind of person. Second are the people for whom panhandling is driven by alcohol or substance abuse. Studies commissioned by the federal government have concluded that more than two-thirds of all panhandling is prompted by some form of dependency — which, in turn, fuels various types of illegal activity. Third are those folks who have adopted street living as a lifestyle or who choose to make panhandling their profession. These individuals may or may not be homeless and may or may not have other work. Unfortunately, when someone is standing in front of you, there’s no way to tell what their motivation is. And whatever it is, the challenge for our community is to respond appropriately.

It’s appropriate for a community to provide assistance to people who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times. It’s also appropriate for a community to refrain from — and urge others to refrain from — “enabling” behaviors that perpetuate and support a lifestyle dependent on and colored by drug or alcohol abuse. At the same time, it’s appropriate to make solid, effective treatment options available. And it’s very appropriate to discourage the activities of shills, con artists and drug dealers who prey on others throughout our community. The question is, how do you direct the help appropriately?

The Downtown Social Issues Task Force concluded that we need to take a new approach to the problem. Rather than focusing on preventing panhandlers from asking, the task force recommended mounting an intensive public-relations campaign urging potential givers to donate to those local agencies that provide real, long-term assistance instead of giving directly to the panhandlers.

The result was the Asheville Downtown Association’s Spare Change for Real Change program, which provides posters and brochures detailing the various locations where constructive help is available. For those who care to give to a worthy cause, information is available on where to contribute. The brochure can also be given directly to individuals instead of money, to steer them toward real help. The final component of the program calls for placing collection boxes throughout downtown for donations to these local groups. The Downtown Association has pledged the money to pay for the collection boxes and is waiting for the city to complete its permitting process.

In closing, I want to thank Mountain Xpress for the responsibility it has shown in providing a forum for discussion about these problems. I hope that the Downtown Association’s observations, efforts and comments will make a further contribution to addressing this and other challenges facing the downtown community.

[Downtown-business owner Dwight Butner is president of the Asheville Downtown Association and co-chair of the Panhandling Subcommittee.]

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