Asheville native Billie Riddell had run out of gas. She is homeless, and her car contained all of her possessions. Then a police officer arrived on the scene.
"The policeman wanted me to leave my car after rolling it down to a cleaner's," she explains. "In the process of doing so, I was so nervous I ran it into a curb. I was told he would call a tow truck. I found him very, very rude and intimidating.
"I went down and asked these men if they could help us. They went to offer me and the girl I was with money, and when they did, the policeman then put his hand on his gun and told them they couldn't give me money. We were not panhandling -- I just needed money to get back to AHOPE [the Ann Street shelter where she was staying]." And when the tow truck arrived, she says, a second police officer showed up and persuaded the driver not to take her car.
The 57-year-old Riddell says she depleted her savings taking care of her elderly uncle, who lived in the Battery Park Apartments. But when he died, she could no longer stay there.
"I wasn't 62 and I wasn't disabled, so I had to leave," Riddell said. That left her living out of her car and going from shelter to shelter. She now lives in AHOPE, a shelter run by the nonprofit Hospitality House, and says she's unhappy about the way she's been treated in her hometown.
"I grew up here: I went to private school here, I was a cheerleader, I rode in the Christmas Parade," says Riddell. "I worked in the Grove Park Inn and the S&W when that was a cafeteria. I've felt disappointed by some of the people here and their opinions of homeless people."
But Asheville is a tourist town, and that puts the homeless on a collision course with the needs and values of visitors, downtown merchants and more prosperous city residents. A 2002 ordinance cracked down on panhandling, sparking complaints from homeless folks who say the law unfairly targets them.
And in recent months, a dispute over the free Saturday breakfasts a volunteer ministry was serving in Pritchard Park once again placed the homeless in the spotlight (see "Feeding the Fire," May 31 Xpress and "The Cost of a Free Meal in Asheville," June 7 Xpress).
Several current City Council members highlighted homelessness and related issues such as affordable housing in their campaigns last fall, and city leaders point to Asheville's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness as evidence that the city is tackling the underlying problems (see sidebar, "Taking Aim at Homelessness").
But while everyone agrees that homelessness is a problem in Asheville, it remains to be seen whether the city can find solutions that will satisfy all of the diverse parties involved.
Buddy, can you spare a dime?
In March, local homeless man Bruce Deile wrote letters that appeared in local newspapers asserting that under the city's panhandling ordinance, he'd been threatened with "arrest and jail for holding a sign along an interstate off-ramp." Deile also spoke at a City Council meeting, calling on Council to rescind the law. He has since moved to Washington state.
In November 2003, in response to frequent citizen complaints, City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting "aggressive panhandling" in the city -- and all panhandling within the downtown area and Biltmore Village. (The lone dissenter, Brian Peterson, is no longer on Council.) The following year, the ordinance was tweaked to allow buskers and charitable organizations to continue soliciting funds on the street.
In the summer months, the Police Department typically arrests 10-15 people a month for violating the ordinance (a misdemeanor).
"It's probably one of the areas we get the most complaints in -- especially in downtown," says Capt. Tim Splain, who heads up the Patrol Division. "It puts people in fear. ... A tourist or visitor or even a businessman, they want to freely move about downtown without every time they walk past a bench getting asked for money. In a stairwell they're being asked, then from every alleyway. It gives the appearance that it's dangerous or someone's going to rob them."
The ordinance may even extend to an incident like Riddell's, though it does not prohibit people from offering aid to the homeless, emphasizes Splain.
"If she was asking or had a sign asking for gas money, it would fall under the ordinance," he notes. "What we encourage people to do is give spare change to collection jars to AHOPE or another agency. ... This is not an act against the homeless. But we literally get complaints daily that people feel scared that they might be robbed. But certainly, when someone offers them money, that's fine."
City officials maintain that the ordinance helps preserve public order. But some local homeless folks and activists who work with them sound a more cynical note, saying the city's attitude and policies toward the homeless merely serve to further marginalize people who are already struggling.
Denying the right to give?
"As a Christian minister, I believe Jesus is decidedly pro-panhandling," proclaims the Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-pastor of the Zacchaeus House ministry, whose focus is the poor and homeless.
"I believe that city, state or federal laws that restrict people from asking for what they need are dangerous for us as human beings," she declares, seated on a bench in Pritchard Park.
After graduating from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., Cantrell lived in Asheville for five years, working as the director of the United Way Volunteer Center and occasionally serving as an associate pastor at local churches. She then returned to Atlanta for a two-year apprenticeship at the Open Door Community, a mission serving the homeless, before returning to Asheville in January and helping found Zacchaeus House.
"That's why communities exist," she maintains. "We should be able to freely ask for and give help. I've done both in my life and do both in Asheville. We're accorded that right under the First Amendment. [The panhandling ordinance] also takes away my rights to be able to share what I have. If I can't even be asked, then I'm not free as well."
On the other hand, Howard Stone, executive director of Hospitality House, which oversees AHOPE and does outreach work among the homeless, says the ordinance "really doesn't seem to have had a negative impact at all ... because AHOPE is open seven days a week -- so the homeless have someplace to go," Stone said. "Like any shelter, our goal is to get people off the streets and into housing -- none of us approve of panhandling."
How do you spell "aggressive"?
In recent years, several major cities -- among them Los Angeles in 2000 and Chicago in 2004 -- have seen federal judges strike down blanket panhandling bans, ruling that they violate free-speech rights.
But City Attorney Bob Oast says Asheville's ordinance is not at risk, because it specifically targets aggressive panhandling, limits a stricter ban to certain defined areas, and is modeled on other laws that the courts have upheld.
"We based this ordinance on those of several cities, including Indianapolis and Fort Lauderdale, whose ordinances against aggressive panhandling have stood up in court," Oast explains. "We also consulted with civil-liberties groups who had some concerns about this ordinance. They had a chance -- formally and informally -- to review it, and we took their concerns into consideration."
Asked what specific actions might constitute "aggressive panhandling," Oast said it would depend on the context of the situation. "Moving across the street to panhandle, following someone down the street after they've refused, blocking their path on the sidewalk -- basically, intruding on someone's space or physically intimidating them. Simply standing with hat out in hand, I don't think that's what we were looking for."
Splain, however, emphasizes that in downtown and Biltmore Village, the police must enforce the ordinance's blanket panhandling ban. "It doesn't necessarily have to be aggressive. ... I could stand on the corner with a sign, and that's a violation of the ordinance. It's to prohibit anyone from basically asking for funds in any manner."
And even elsewhere in the city, Oast concedes that "there is variance -- what might not feel aggressive to a pro football player might seem quite aggressive to someone of a smaller stature." Splain, meanwhile, says, "The way it's described is ... just by approaching or speaking to a person in a manner that would cause them reasonable fear of harm or a criminal act."
On the spot
Disagreement about how to interpret the law may reflect inherent tensions in the whole complex issue that is homelessness.
The police, says Splain, are "pitted between our desire to help people who are poor and homeless and the actual ability to control and reduce crime. We don't want to be seen as the bad guys. ... But as long as there's a statute out there, we have to enforce it."
Other factors also make the department's job harder, he notes. "This whole situation kind of snowballs: You've got the lack of affordable housing, the lack of a social-detox center where substance abusers can get convenient and ready help. But some of the homeless are some of our chronic criminals, and they do prey on the public and do anything from larceny to armed robbery. There's a whole spectrum of social issues that surround this."
Cantrell, meanwhile, emphasizes the diverse attitudes of individual law-enforcement personnel toward the homeless. "You have to remember, police are people too. There is one officer in downtown that's incredibly friendly; he speaks to many people. That's the kind of policing we really need to have -- police that are community resources."
But others, she maintains, "have a more militant approach. ... It's very focused on enforcement in ways that I think escalate problems sometimes." Riddell, too, says she's seen police behavior vary widely.
One oft-cited sore point in the homeless community is ID checks. Cantrell, for example, says she's seen "ID checks in Pritchard Park that specifically target the homeless and poor. I've certainly never been asked for my ID, and I think a lot of middle- and upper-class folks just don't have that experience."
She also speaks of "sweeps ... done around particular times of the year. I'm not in all those places every night, but I've noticed times tend to come when folks are rounded up. I think it has to do with public image at particular times."
Splain, however, calls those assertions "urban legends" created by misinterpretations of police procedure. "This city has a lot of resources for someone who's homeless, a lot of shelters," he notes. "We're probably friendlier in that regard than many other cities. So we do see a growth in that population in warm weather.
"We also get more complaints. I think that's where the whole myth that we sweep the streets comes from. But if you walk down the street today or in February, it's not much different. As for ID checks, we act only on criminal behavior."
Still, local homeless people say they often find themselves trapped by the logistics of their situation and the restrictions imposed by the law.
"It's hard to just clean up in a public restroom," notes Riddell. "But if you can't clean up and look presentable, then you can't get work."
And Mark Maloy, a homeless man who's been in Asheville for several years, says he struggles both with diabetes -- which has already claimed two of his toes -- and with what he terms the "unjust" conditions created by the city's approach to homelessness.
When he's tried to make money without begging by selling items such as glow sticks, says Maloy, a former South Carolina preacher, the police have threatened him with arrest. "I'm trying to be an honest citizen here," says Minister Mark, as he prefers to be known.
"It is illegal under federal law to target me because I'm homeless. But they singled me out. ... The city of Asheville violates the rights of the homeless every day."
Splain, however, flatly denies the accusation. The APD, he says, does not engage in such targeting, and it has to justify every citation -- and police officers' behavior -- in court.
"We don't look at a person because of their economic status, their ethnicity, their religion," he asserts. "We look only at criminal behavior. ... If we go to court, we have to give what our probable cause was for every step of the way. We have to have a complaint or see something to proceed. That's one of those sure-fire ways to get in trouble, and that's not something we do."
Stone, meanwhile, says that Hospitality House is "not getting any negative feedback on the dealings with the police. If anything, it seems to me that the city has, as much as possible, a compassionate police force."
Out in the cold
The panhandling ordinance isn't the only law that makes life difficult for homeless folks. Laws restricting access to public property also make the situation more difficult, Cantrell asserts.
"I've seen several citations for that on weeks when I've called the local shelters and been told they're full and have a waiting list," Cantrell reports. "You literally have people being arrested for being homeless ... because they have nowhere else to go at that point."
In March, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that that city could not arrest a homeless person for "trespassing" on public property if they carried a letter from a shelter attesting that it was full. Maloy wonders why Asheville doesn't embrace a similar strategy.
"Why don't they deal with reality?" he says. "Why don't they give out a permit each night saying that you went to the mission and it was full. Then when [people are] found by the police, they can't be arrested. Maybe made to leave the premises, but at least not arrested."
Mayor Terry Bellamy says the city has no such plans at the moment, though Oast notes, "We are always taking a look at what other municipalities are doing and trying to find new ways to tackle these problems in Asheville."
And Splain emphasizes the lengths the police go to, especially in winter, to ensure that the homeless have someplace to go.
"If we know the temperatures are going to drop, we've got officers going through the city, going through the alleyways, looking for people to give them a ride to the shelter," he notes. "It's not like we don't take into account the human side of the situation. It does sometimes happen that on a freezing-cold night, the shelters will be full. Sometimes we can convince them to take overflow; even if someone has to sleep on the floor, that's better than being out in the cold. Sometimes we've even opened up the lobby of the station for people to sleep. It's not common, but it's not unheard of. We'll do just about anything."
Three years later
Three of those who originally voted for the panhandling ordinance still serve on City Council: Mayor Bellamy, Vice Mayor Holly Jones and Council member Carl Mumpower. All three now say the law has yielded mixed results.
Jones made homelessness and affordable housing major issues in her re-election campaign last November. She has since pushed the city's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. And she has mixed feelings about the ordinance she supported three years ago.
"I had some doubts at the time, and I still kind of wrestle with that," says Jones. "The situation had gotten really bad, and it did finally get reduced right afterwards.
"Is [the ordinance] still effective? I think the jury's out on that. In some ways, I think the city has definitely failed on this issue. I think it's very subjective as to how effective it's been. I didn't get panhandled much before the ordinance."
Bellamy, however, feels the law needs more teeth. "We did a great job crafting the panhandling ordinance," she says. "The problem has been enforcing [it]. ... The penalties that are there are just not strong enough. The fact is, nobody wants to be aggressively panhandled."
Mumpower, meanwhile, says the ordinance is "not particularly effective. Our enforcement is spotty; the court system's ability to support our enforcement is spotty. ... I believe the ordinance needs to be strengthened. I don't believe we help people by letting them beg and abuse our streets."
As for concerns about restricting free speech or punishing those hit hard by circumstances, he says: "I think it's nonsense -- you can take any good concept and abuse it. This is not just about down-on-their-luck homeless people. This is about a group that also includes criminals, drug addicts, alcoholics and ne'er-do-wells who use our streets as a playground for misbehavior."
Gentlemen and ladies
Maloy, however, paints a very different picture of the local homeless population. "About 30 percent of homeless people wouldn't dare drink a beer and are perfect gentlemen and ladies," he declares. "We absolutely deserve all the help we can get."
But Maloy and other local homeless folks do seem to find common ground with Mumpower on one point: the need to crack down on violent crime.
"These violent homeless people, [the city doesn't] do anything to get them off of the street, and it makes it harder for those who aren't violent," says Maloy. "The alcoholics who are a public nuisance make it harder for the rest of us.
"That's a lack of the justice system. If they're homeless and they get in a big fight, they stay in jail overnight, where a regular person would be faced with 20 years' worth of charges. ... If they treated the violent homeless the way they treat other criminals, they would be moved out of the way for the ones who are not."
Jones acknowledges that the city "dropped the ball" in not following the recommendations of multiple task forces and committees over the years. But the vice mayor asserts that with the 10-Year Plan, Asheville now has a serious strategy for addressing the problem (see sidebar).