CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - Growing complaints over aggressive panhandling in uptown has resulted in a new campaign to encourage people not to give them one penny.
The campaign is being unveiled at a time when panhandlers have seeped into every aspect of uptown life, yelling at passersby, stalking uptown residents to their doors and following people into businesses. The majority of those panhandlers are addicts, research shows.
"As long as we as a community continue to give $5 to somebody and say 'God bless you.' that person will always be on a street corner," says campaign spokesman Tony Marciano, head of the Charlotte Rescue Mission. "But when the supply dries up...and they no longer get their money, the panhandling stops. An addict only seeks help when they hit bottom. As long as we continue to give them funding for their drug habit, they don't hit bottom."
Many of the community's housing and addiction charities are key partners in the effort as is Charlotte Mecklenburg Police. Those partner organizations recently met with local residents, houses of faith, businesses and members of the hospitality industry "to encourage them to say no to panhandlers when asked," according to a statement from Charlotte Center City Partners, which is participating in the effort.
Instead, the public is being instructed to inform panhandlers they can get food, shelter and healthcare at one of the many nonprofits, most of which are right outside of uptown along North Tryon Street.
Not all panhandling is illegal in Charlotte, which has helped the problem spread. Standing along the streets holding a sign is protected as free speech. It only becomes illegal when the panhandler accosts someone, forces himself on a passerby, or touches them in anyway. It's also illegal to approach people after dark, in line at an ATM or while they're at an outdoor eating area.
In recent years, panhandling has spread from uptown to surrounding areas, including corners at interstate exits. One such panhandler died last year, when his clothing got caught on a passing vehicle and he was pulled under the wheels. In another 2017 case, a panhandler was struck and killed before dawn, when he crossed traffic lanes to reach the median at an Interstate 85 overpass.
"The best way to help is to direct the person in need to the places where they can get professional help," Marciano said. "Results are not instant. But connecting someone in crisis with these services allows for relationships to form that go beyond treating the immediate needs of the individual and starts a conversation toward finding long-term solutions, making real change."
As part of the campaign, Charlotte police are offering aggressive and illegal panhandlers professional help instead of jail or tickets, said Center City Partners.