Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have some advice for dealing with a troublesome staple of city life — just say no to panhandlers asking for money.
Then walk away. Or call 911 if they get aggressive. The money does nothing to change the person’s situation, police and service providers said, and may go toward a drug or alcohol habit.
There are other ways to assist them. “If you have a helping heart, the city has many charities to donate to,” Officer Brad Hall said.
Hall and Officer Russ Faulkenberry are at the center of a new approach to panhandlers, and developed a way to help them while seeking to reduce the number of such cases. They decided to bring along service providers for panhandlers to meet after they are arrested rather than simply spend a night in jail.
Making the arrest was not a deterrent to stopping the behavior.
CMPD Officer Russ Faulkenberry
Hall and Faulkenberry work in the Central Division which covers uptown, where businesses, hotels, restaurants, parks and condos provide a natural draw for panhandlers.
During nighttime undercover operations on panhandling in that division, police now take with them people who deal with housing and homelessness, mental health, substance abuse and other issues.
“No one wakes up saying, ‘I’m going to go panhandle today, and this is the life I want,’ ” Faulkenberry said. “So we’re hoping to at least make those connections for those folks to go on that road to recovery.”
Instead of going to jail for processing, panhandlers are often given a citation as well as the option of speaking directly with a service provider. That interaction is voluntary and does not change the issuing of the citation, which has to be handled in court later.
Among the uptown places where panhandlers have appeared of late, CMPD says, is on N. Tryon Street between 7th and 12th streets, around the EpiCentre near the light rail tracks and Romare Bearden Park.
One uptown resident said she leaves her headphones on when she walks to work or while waiting in line at a fast-food restaurant in the hopes that panhandlers will leave her alone.
The presence of panhandlers doesn’t deter Cabarrus County resident Kevin Johnson from regularly coming to uptown Charlotte on weekends.
He said he’s often approached by panhandlers. One asked for money right after Johnson pulled into a parking spot and another approached him when he was eating outside at a restaurant.
“I’m not afraid of going uptown, but it’s definitely a nuisance,” Johnson said. “The uptown area needs suburbanites to feel safe and come in to town.”
Johnson, who noted his Concord church works with the homeless, said he doesn’t give panhandlers money. He figured a better way to help is to write a check to an agency that works with them.
Continual complaints from residents and business owners about aggressive panhandlers led Hall and Faulkenberry to pitch their bosses about a new way to deal with the issue in January.
“Making the arrest was not a deterrent to stopping the behavior,” Faulkenberry said.
Service providers include Urban Ministry Center, which helps the homeless, county mental health officials and Anuvia Prevention & Recovery Center. They wait nearby as plainclothes officers run the operation. After the arrests, police let the panhandlers and the resource providers talk by themselves about the services.
Allison Winston, director of outreach and engagement with Urban Ministry, has gone out on several operations.
“I was really surprised how well it went. It was very collaborative,” she said. “It’s a really innovative approach and it’s working.”
There have been three operations this year with the central division, and another is planned for May. Nineteen people were arrested with all but one issued citations, Hall said. The person who was jailed had an outstanding warrant.
At least two other CMPD divisions are taking this approach. Hall said. And none of the 19 were re-arrested for panhandling so far.
Then there was the homeless panhandler who agreed to enter a detox program the night he was arrested. He completed a month-long program then was able to get permanent housing, Hall said. The officers hope they will see many more cases like that.