Out of sight, out of mind: Panhandling in Greensboro
By: Jessica Clifford
Eight of nine city council members agreed to make poverty the top-ranking priority for Greensboro in 2018 during a recent retreat.
On Feb. 7, the day before the retreat, an opinion editorial from the Greensboro News & Record and a news segment on Fox 8 News, entered the media landscape. Both the article and the news segment discussed the negative effect of giving money to panhandlers.
Marcus Hyde, a long-time homeless organizer and someone who experienced homelessness, cites those arguments as “classic poor-shaming opinions.”
“There is this huge public education piece missing from the homeless conversation,” Hyde said.
For Hyde and others, such as Michelle Kennedy, the current executive director of the Interactive Resource Center and an at-large representative for Greensboro City Council, one of the missing pieces is the unconstitutionality of the panhandling and loitering ordinances in the city.
Though panhandling is a free speech right, Greensboro requires panhandlers to have a permit. Requesting a permit requires a free background check that takes up to 10 days. Once cleared, a person must visit or call the collections division and show two forms of identification before receiving a permit.
“The people who it would be most difficult to get a permit are the ones who would find it most difficult to get a job,” said Liz Seymour, the founding executive director of the IRC.
The permit is a “prior restraint” based on the First Amendment and claims discrimination against the content of someone’s speech by the Supreme Court Case Reed v. Town of Gilbert and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Karen Hall, a woman who has panhandled for about five or six years, moved to Greensboro to get away from troubles in her home state of Alabama after she spent 15 years in jail. Hall has a permit and knows all the laws necessary to panhandle without receiving a ticket. She believes enforcing panhandlers to have a permit is a good law.
“I think it’s a really good thing to have a permit because if you don’t, then everybody would be out here,” Hall said.
Seymour was surprised when she met with several homeless people at the IRC one day, and many agreed with the sentiment Hall shares.
“People didn’t mind regulation as much as I thought they might,” Seymour said. “But, just what it does to the community attitude, people were really upset about that.”
Seymour added that many homeless people do not want to be lumped into one group of criminalized people.
Kennedy said she understands that businesses have a stake in what happens near their business as well as parents that want their children to be safe. She also states her biggest issue with the ordinances is the connection between panhandling and other crime.
“You have to separate the protected, free-speech act of panhandling from this term that folks keep using of ‘aggressive panhandling,’” Kennedy said. “I think they are really two different conversations and people don’t tend to view it that way, which is unfortunate.”
A common theme from homeless people in Greensboro is that they do not feel good when they are panhandling, but they feel it is more of a necessity.
“Always when I did it, I was constantly looking for jobs, but sometimes in life, desperate needs call for desperate measures,” said a former New York City panhandler at the IRC, who did not want to be named. “I never felt good about it. Another part of me would be like well at least I’m not going to jail because I’m not robbing anybody. I’m giving these people an option.”
Hall shared a similar view.
“I cry sometimes because people are so good to me and it makes me feel bad, but they just want to see me do good,” she said.
Other than the permit, Hyde said specific loitering ordinances are vague. Some ordinances that standout for him is Sec. 18-44 (b) occupying a place that is within 50 feet of the entrance and exit of a store that sells alcohol and Sec. 18-46 (b) (7) a person cannot loiter “at a location frequented by persons who use, possess, or sell drugs.”
“Panhandling [and loitering] ordinances are directed towards poor people,” Hyde said. “But, the ordinance never says…this only applies to poor people. But, in actual effect that is who is affected.”
From this perspective, panhandling and loitering ordinances are reminiscent of past discriminatory laws including Jim Crow, Anti-Okie and Ugly Laws. All of which, were abolished, but the effects are lasting.
Looking toward solutions, many state the criminalization of homeless people is not the answer. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness states that multiple studies prove supportive housing is the valid solution because it reduces the cost of publicly funded crisis services, creates housing stability and improves health.
A sentiment that is clear between Hyde and Kennedy – homeless people deserve a right to speak on the matter.
“Any conversation about a segment of the population that doesn’t include that segment of the population is not a conversation worth having,” Kennedy said.
With poverty ranked the top priority for the city in 2018, Greensboro residents will have to see what the city council’s solutions entail.
Jessica Clifford is a senior at UNCG, majoring in Communication Studies and minoring in English.