Greensboro held five public forums in the past week, ostensibly to get input on a range of ordinances governing the use of public space such as food trucks, street performers and panhandlers.
I attended three of the five and never heard food trucks or street performers mentioned. The discussion centered around an ordinance to prohibit aggressive panhandling. But even that was never discussed in any detail. No one talked about what should be included in an ordinance. It was almost all either totally opposed to any ordinance about panhandling or in favor of some ordinance prohibiting aggressive panhandling.
Representatives of the Homeless Union and the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), which is the daytime homeless shelter on Washington Street run by City Councilmember Michelle Kennedy, dominated most of the meetings.
People who have attended or watched any of the Greensboro City Council town hall meetings since April, or any of the meetings where the panhandling ordinance was discussed, have heard most of what was said at these meetings and heard many of the speakers representing the Homeless Union.
With all of the issues facing Greensboro, it seems incredible that the City Council has chosen to devote the past three months to an ordinance on aggressive panhandling.
The city currently has no ordinance about panhandling. On April 24, by a unanimous vote, the City Council repealed the panhandling ordinance that required panhandlers to obtain a free license from the city and restricted the times, places and manner that people could panhandle.
This was done on the advice of City Attorney Tom Carruthers based on a Supreme Court ruling on signs that ruled signs could not be restricted because of content. Lower courts have interpreted this to mean that speech cannot be restricted based on content either, but despite what many speakers have said at City Council meetings and at these forums, the Supreme Court has not ruled on panhandling ordinances. It appeared to be part of the script for speakers associated with the Homeless Union to say that any panhandling ordinance was unconstitutional; but because that is their opinion doesn’t make it true. Until the Supreme Court rules on a case, it is an opinion not a fact as it was often stated.
The city has hired Mac McCarly of Parker Poe in Charlotte to assist in writing an ordinance prohibiting aggressive solicitation. McCarly was the city attorney for Charlotte before joining Parker Poe and specializes in municipal law. He attended all the public forums, as did attorneys from the City Legal Department.
John Stephens from the North Carolina School of Government was the facilitator for the forums and speakers were limited to three minutes, less time than they get at City Council town hall meetings, but they were allowed to speak as many times as time allowed.
At none of the three meetings I attended was there a discussion on what an aggressive panhandling ordinance should or should not include. Those associated with the Homeless Union and the IRC were opposed to any ordinance at all about panhandling.
Marcus Hyde, an organizer for the Homeless Union of Greensboro, said at one forum, “We, the Homeless Union, will fight whatever solicitation ordinance that is proposed.”
The City Council on April 24 and again on May 17 passed an ordinance prohibiting aggressive solicitation, but the city currently has no law because of a parliamentary maneuver. The ordinance passed on April 24 with a 6-to-3 vote, which meant it became law. However, at the end of that meeting when the City Council passed a local preference policy for certain contracts, Councilmember Sharon Hightower said that if that policy for granting preference to local contractors passed she was going to change her vote on the aggressive solicitation ordinance.
A month later, on May 17, Hightower made a motion for reconsideration so she could change her vote and then she voted no on the ordinance. With Hightower voting no, the ordinance passed 5 to 4 with Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilmembers Justin Outling, Marikay Abuzuaiter, Tammi Thurm and Nancy Hoffmann voting in favor and Councilmembers Hightower, Yvonne Johnson, Goldie Wells and Michelle Kennedy voting against.
Because the ordinance only passed by a simple majority it did not become law, but was supposed to come back for a second vote in June. For an ordinance to go into effect it has to pass by a super majority or pass at two different meetings by a simple majority. At the June 19 meeting a motion was made to postpone the vote on the ordinance and that passed.
This City Council is nothing if not indecisive. At the June 19 meeting, Outling was urging his fellow councilmembers to make a decision, vote the ordinance up or down and move on.
However, at that point the city had already hired McCarly and scheduled the five public forums.
The City Council is holding a special meeting on July 24 where the aggressive solicitation ordinance is scheduled to be the sole item on the agenda.
So far it is the summer of panhandling as far as the Greensboro City Council is concerned. The City Council had already spent far more time discussing, considering and listening to speakers talk about a panhandling ordinance than it spent on the $543 million budget.
The only one of the three public forums I attended where there was an actual discussion on the pros and cons of a panhandling ordinance was held at the Greater Greensboro Community Foundation office on Monday, June 25.
Tim Bryson said about panhandlers, “I’ve been yelled at and flipped off.”
He said he had taken a lot of photos of panhandlers standing by the street littering and said that other cities had programs to provide temporary work for homeless people and Greensboro should try something similar.
Andy Zimmerman, who has been active in renovating buildings and bringing new businesses to the southern part of downtown, said he was looking forward to positive results from the forums, “But what I’m tired of is not getting something passed for aggressive panhandling and the continued discussion of panhandling.”
Zimmerman said that aggressive panhandling was a small problem but it needed to be fixed in order to focus on bigger problems.
He said that he had never once seen the police be aggressive when addressing a panhandler but he had seen them do a great job of deescalating situations.
Zimmerman said, “This law will not be unconstitutional. This is what the city is striving for. What I’m hearing from the Homeless Union is that they don’t think the police are going to do their job at all.”
A member of the Homeless Union said that the city didn’t need an ordinance outlawing aggressive panhandling but did need a policy to protect homeless people – a homeless bill of rights.
Colin Brown said he was homeless and lived at the Weaver House. He said, “At the Weaver House, 85 percent of the people who are there are mentally ill.”
He also said he didn’t panhandle.
Rob Overman, the director of Greensboro Downtown Parks Inc., said, “This is a tough situation for myself and my staff. What I’ve told my staff is we want to be empathetic, fair and firm. We try to be fair to have a park for all people.”
He said they grappled with being a park for all people and also protecting the city’s assets.
He said, “We got a complaint from a mom with three kids who couldn’t get out of the parking deck because someone was aggressively panhandling.”
He said, “We need an ordinance that will address aggressive panhandling.”
He also said that they had seen an uptick in aggressive panhandling this summer with no panhandling ordinance over last summer when an ordinance was in place.
Bob Foxworth said that there were enough laws already in place and a law about aggressive panhandling would only complicate matters.
He also said, “I moved here in ’69 and I’ve yet to see anything constructive done to help people without an ulterior motive.”
He later admitted that was hyperbole.
Hester Petty, who has become a regular speaker at City Council meetings and described herself as a supporter of the Homeless Union, said, “I’ve never seen any aggressive panhandling.”
She added, “Anything they do is going to be unconstitutional. Does that bother anybody here to the extent it bothers me?”
Cecelia Thompson, the executive director of Action Greensboro, noted that she had much the same policy of being empathetic but firm and making sure Center City Park was a park for all people when Action Greensboro managed it.
She said that Action Greensboro was concentrating on recruiting adults to the downtown and it was made more difficult when panhandlers screamed at them as recently happened to a young employee of Action Greensboro recently in LeBauer Park.
She said she thought there needed to be some compromise in dealing with aggressive panhandling.
Walker Sanders, the president of The Community Foundation, said that the IRC came out of a meeting 15 years ago where community leaders were trying to provide services for the homeless population. He said what they heard then from homeless people was, “We need a place to be.” He noted that the Community Foundation owned the IRC building.
He said that Greensboro had really strong nonprofits that deal with the homeless population everyday and maybe they need to do more.
Marcus Hyde talked about the loitering law that outlawed loitering in areas known to be used by the drug trade. He said, “That would include every street corner in the city.”
Hyde said that there is a history of racist policing in the city and he traced the panhandling ordinance back to the Jim Crow laws.
Another push by the speakers from the Homeless Union was for a set of protocols for the police to follow when dealing with homeless people.
Ches Kennedy, who is on the board of Partners Ending Homelessness, said that when he had a store downtown, the old ordinance was in effect and “People seemed to think it took some of the fear out of people walking around downtown.”
He also said he had had experiences with panhandlers where he felt threatened but he wasn’t going to fight or pull out his phone and call the police.
At the public forum on Thursday, June 21, things were shaping up the way they did with Hyde and others from the Homeless Union saying that any ordinance would be unconstitutional. Hyde said, “I think this process is pretty bogus.”
He said what was needed was a law protecting the rights of homeless people and a police protocol on dealing with the homeless.
But Ron Tuck had a different answer. He held up a number of dollar bills and read from them. “This bill says in God we trust. That is the solution right there plain and simple. It’s called prayer.”
He said, “The father is going to take care of you. He’s not going to give you what you want but he will take care of you.”