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Asheville Police Department pushes to expand panhandling restrictions despite decline in calls reporting panhandlers

Justin Williams, a routine panhandler, stands at the corner of Montford Avenue and Cherry Street near downtown Asheville.
Photo by Laura Hackett
Justin Williams, a routine panhandler, stands at the corner of Montford Avenue and Cherry Street near downtown Asheville.

After a 10-month hiatus, Asheville city government has resumed discussions of panhandling restrictions.

Asheville Police Chief Mike Lamb wants to increase the number of places designated as High Traffic Zones, areas where it is illegal under city code for a person to verbally solicit and/or panhandle. Solicitation with a sign is still permitted in these areas.

Lamb presented data showing that the number of panhandling calls fielded by the Asheville Police Department actually declined over the last year. Over the last year, panhandling calls have decreased by 40%, according to police data.

Despite data showing a decline in panhandling, Lamb said more restrictions are needed. He said the decrease could be attributed to underreporting or “staffing issues.”

APD Spokesperson Rick Rice declined to answer whether something other than underreporting might be the cause of the decline, writing, “I can speak to the reductions that began during the 2020 pandemic but dropped sharply in mid-2021, which corresponds with the change in APD response.”

Data shared by APD at the June 25 Environment & Safety Committee meeting.
Screenshot courtesy of City of Asheville
Data shared by APD at the June 25 Environment & Safety Committee meeting.

Police, city manager claim panhandling is a safety issue

In a presentation to the Environment and Safety Committee meeting in late June, Lamb said the measure would improve safety, but some council members questioned the rationale.

“One out of every five pedestrian crashes occur within 25 feet of a reported panhandling location and three out of every four crashes happen within 500 feet of a panhandling location,” Lamb said.

Council member Maggie Ullman asked if the data Lamb presented illustrated causation or correlation.

“Is that what you're telling me? That we're seeing pedestrians who are panhandling getting into vehicle crashes — or you're just correlating that there's more unsafety in the area because people are in the roadway?” Ullman asked.

The department does not track what activity they were engaged in, but only records if the involved parties are pedestrians, Rice told BPR in an email.

Lamb said that “there’s been a few crashes” involving pedestrians that were panhandling at heavily trafficked intersections, along with some vehicular collisions in scenarios where a car has stopped at a green light to give out money to a panhandler.

There are currently only two areas designated as High Traffic Zones: portions of the downtown Central Business District and the Biltmore Village Historic District.

In a June 25 Environment and Safety Committee meeting, Lamb recommended that Patton Avenue, Haywood Road, and S. Tunnel Road be considered for a High Traffic Zone designation. He also recommended that the existing zone in downtown Asheville be expanded to include sections of Merrimon Avenue and the South Slope.

“These recommendations are grounded in detailed assessments of traffic patterns, concentrations of pedestrian-involved collisions, and the volume of panhandling-related calls for service,” Rice told BPR in an email.

Data shared by APD at the June 25 Environment & Safety Committee meeting.
Screengrab courtesy of City of Asheville
Data shared by APD at the June 25 Environment & Safety Committee meeting.

One example, Lamb shared, was in Pack Square Park, which saw 23 panhandling calls and eight pedestrian motor vehicle accidents in 2023. In total, 13% of 2023 pedestrian crashes occurred inside areas with a high number of panhandling calls, according to Lamb’s presentation.

“But you know, I don't have the percentage or the numbers. Sometimes it’s hard to really separate and really know ‘Was that pedestrian specifically involved in panhandling at the time’?” Lamb said.

City manager Debra Campbell said the data illustrates the city’s concerns around safety for panhandlers. “I think our point is that panhandling is not safe if it is done in areas where there is a lot of vehicular traffic,” she said.

Lamb did not cite any studies that directly link panhandling as a cause of pedestrian motor vehicle accidents. He was not available for additional comment.

A map of current and recommended High Traffic Zones.
Graphic by Laura Hackett
A map of current and recommended High Traffic Zones.

Are restrictions on panhandling constitutional?

Panhandling is a protected First Amendment free speech right, according to Eric Tars, a senior policy director for the National Homelessness Law Center.

“Under our Constitution, speech is protected. It's the First Amendment, one of our most core values, and if an elected official can put up a sign on the side of the road and ask for your vote and ask for donations to their campaign, then our Constitution says you can't distinguish between different messages, different forms of speech.”

But the right is not absolute, and an existing Asheville ordinance regulates some elements of panhandling.

Panhandling is prohibited after dark and within 20 feet of a bank or ATM, within eight feet of a transit stop and within an outdoor dining area. The ordinance also prohibits accosting, touching, threatening or blocking others while panhandling. Panhandling or solicitation is also not allowed while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Additionally, panhandling and soliciting are prohibited on a median, in the street and/or on a roadside shoulder.

A violation could result in a Class 3 misdemeanor charge and a fine of no more than $500.

Tars called the restrictions an “unconstitutional regulation.”

“There's no justification for impinging on people's speech,” he said. “If an elected official would be allowed to break out a bullhorn and ask for people's votes from the side of the road in that High Traffic Zone, then a person experiencing homelessness should equally be able to ask for donations.”

City Attorney Brad Branham disagreed. “The City's current ordinance has been in place for many years, and has been frequently vetted by the City's legal department,” Branham said in an email to BPR. “We feel secure that the current regulations are consistent with current State and Federal law.”

Branham said each proposal for a new area to be declared a High Traffic Zone must be legally vetted.

He told BPR that the city has not received any legal challenges to its solicitation ordinances in the last five years of his tenure.

A popular intersection for panhandling in downtown Asheville.
Photo by Laura Hackett
A popular intersection for panhandling in downtown Asheville.

Safety concerns are “an excuse” to push out homeless

Justin Williams has been unhoused for four years after going through a divorce. He said he is looking for a house and job, but it’s taken a long time. He often stands on the I-240 exit near Montford Avenue, in hopes that he’ll get “somewhere between $5 or $20 dollars” for cigarettes, bottled water or a burger.

“This is one of the one of the favorites among us homeless people, specifically because it is an off-ramp and you get a lot of traffic and it's going downtown,” he explained. “So it's just one of those perfect roads that has stops on the driver side. The drivers are most likely the ones who are gonna [give], so it helps to be on the driver's side.”

Williams said he thinks the police are using concerns about safety “as an excuse.”

“I think they're just trying to find an easy way to push us out,” he said.

Tourism probably plays a large role in the policing of panhandling, Williams said.

“Asheville tourism does rely heavily on the beautiful scenery around here. And I don't think homeless people flying a sign is really something tourists want to see, so I think that's probably a large part of the reason why law enforcement is getting very heavily involved in soliciting and whatnot – because of the tourists.”

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An ongoing conversation

This isn’t the first time the city has entertained changes to its panhandling laws.

Last September, Asheville City Council voted to update the panhandling ordinance. Branham said the technical amendments were needed to remain compliant with existing federal laws and were not intended to expand any existing regulations or penalties.

The updated ordinance added new language that instructed solicitors must stay at least eight feet away from transit stops and “individuals who have made a negative response” to their solicitation attempts.

The Environment & Safety Committed also considered a ban on vehicle donations, which would prohibit drivers from giving to panhandlers through the window. An increased selection of High Traffic Zones — similar to what’s been recommended this June — was also on the table.

These conversations stalled out last September, when the Environment & Safety Committee opted to table the discussion during its September 26 meeting, after receiving considerable public backlash.

“Maybe we can we can just pause and just again look at the impact of the technical changes, and I'm hoping that that will be adequate, we're hoping, before we do any additional policy, analysis or changes,” City Manager Campbell said at the time.

Councilwoman Sheneika Smith, who serves on the committee, said she supported a step back to think through the policies more.

“My call is not stepping back because of pressure. My pause is taking a step back so that we can make the right moves and make sure everybody is safe,” she said.

No ordinance changes have been taken up by Asheville City Council. If council were to pursue an update of the ordinance, it would need to hold a public hearing and vote on two readings of the updated ordinance.

When asked if Asheville City Council had plans to take up the recommendation, city spokesperson Kim Miller told BPR that “no recommendations to move the item to the full Council were made” by the committee; “therefore, no proposals are being prepared for Council consideration until and unless otherwise directed by the governing body.”

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.