Sexual misconduct and ‘aggressive panhandling’
“Tonight’s unusual; nobody’s called me the C-word yet,” said Ciara Kelley, who took the noirish black and white photo on this issue’s cover.
Thirty minutes later, I observed her being called that four-letter epithet seven times in rapid succession by a man who stuck out his tongue, smacked his lips and thrust his hips at her on the corner of Elm and Lewis in downtown Greensboro. Her verbal assailant was white and graying, had a tangled beard, and carried a duffel bag in which I observed him rummaging through while leaning against several storefronts. At Kelley’s request, I did not interview the man.
The idea was for me to follow her within earshot but not interact with anyone who harassed her. I didn’t see him panhandling, but when I later showed his photo to Cora Stevens, who works on McGee Street, she claimed to have seen him panhandling on Elm. Jakub Pucilowski, owner of Café Europa, also claimed the man was a panhandler. “He’s done it outside my restaurant,” Pucilowski said.
Kelley’s moody photos of South Elm Street after dark aren’t meant to depict this encounter I witnessed in fading amber sunlight on the corner of Elm and Lewis around 8 p.m. on Friday, June 8. But they illustrate a woman’s subjective fears when walking downtown. Both Kelley and Stevens said that most men who verbally abuse them on the street ask them for money first, and that daily harassment increased after the repeal of Greensboro’s Chapter 20, the ordinance that formerly made it unlawful to engage in certain behaviors while soliciting aid.
Before the April 24 action by the City Council, panhandlers were prohibited from intentionally touching anyone they asked for money without that person’s consent, intentionally blocking their path, following them, using profane or abusive language, continuing to request money after receiving a negative response, coming within three feet before receiving a positive response, and panhandling between sunset and sunrise.
Kelley and Stevens claimed to experience all those things. So have over a dozen other women working for or owning downtown businesses, including the one who first contacted YES! Weekly to complain that “aggressive panhandling” is particularly aggressive toward her gender.
That woman is Jenn Graf, owner of Vintage to Vogue boutique now located at 530 S. Elm St., who suggested I interview her employee Kelley and several young women who intern there.
“I am a bleeding heart and I do want to help people,” Graf told me when we spoke at her store. “I’ve given homeless people clothing and hired them to clean the back parking lot of my previous space at the corner of Friendly and Davie.” She said her problem is not with the homeless or those who have fallen on hard times, but “the select few who’ve made a career out of swindling or intimidating money from people. It’s a shakedown; if I don’t help them out, they get angry and try to scare customers away.”
Graf, who resides as well as works downtown, and has previously lived in New York and London, claimed that panhandling in downtown Greensboro is “far more abusive and intrusive” than anything she experienced in those cities. She expressed concern over what she characterized as the city council’s “prioritizing a panhandler’s rights over those of us who live and work here.”
“You’re going to be losing people like myself,” she said. “I have a neighbor who’s already trying to get out of his lease. Until you’re on this side of the door, you don’t understand the effect it has on businesses.”
The neighbor Graf referred to declined to be quoted on this issue, but several other business owners were more forthcoming, with Alex Amoroso of Cheesecakes by Alex, Easa Hanhan of Jerusalem Market and Alexa Wilde of Antlers and Astronauts expressing their concerns. Hanhan said he definitely favors new legislation to curb aggressive panhandling. “Right now, there’s nothing to keep them from doing that, and some of them get really abusive, particularly towards women.”
It is that alleged abuse, and the direct experience of it on the street, that most concerns Stevens, who now works as a waitress at M’Coul’s and until recently worked at an Elm Street restaurant where she claimed that the man in the photo I showed her had panhandled.
We spoke on the porch of the Mendenhall Street apartment Stevens shares with her boyfriend Chris Galeano, a line cook at M’Coul’s. “I walk to work every day, down McGee until I get to Elm,” Stevens told me. “Just as soon as I hit downtown, it gets intense. Every single day.” She said that, while some have tried to frame the debate over “aggressive panhandling” as a conflict between wealthy business interests and the homeless, “it’s us working-class women caught in-between, as we just try to get to that work without being called names or grabbed.”
She said that both she and Galeano have come to know many panhandlers. “Chris can easily say ‘no, dude, I don’t have any money,’ and they leave him alone right away. But me, they follow, and keep asking, and asking and asking and asking. I don’t know if they think it’s because women have a more nurturing nature, are more likely to be intimidated, or what.” She said it doesn’t end if she gives them money.
“Any time I do that, they treat it like an invitation to ask my phone number and touch me.” Galeano agreed. “Fortunately, I was with her the time this one guy tried to grab her in front in Longshanks.”
Ciara Kelley and Vintage to Vogue interns Natalie Williams and Madison Bergstedt described the experience of being asked for both money and phone numbers when walking from their workplace to Cheesecakes by Alex at 315 S. Elm on a Friday evening as “running the gauntlet.” They said that ignoring such requests usually resulted in insults, but politely declining only intensified them, with Kelley’s shaved head and Williams’ race as targets of invective.
“Panhandlers often call Ciara a bald-headed bitch,” said Bergstedt. “And they kept demanding what I was doing with those white girls,” added Williams.
None of the women I’ve interviewed described anything as ominous as one anecdote presently circulating on Elm Street, which I find dubious and fear is hyperbolizing public conversation. Multiple police officers and store owners told me the story of how a woman was allegedly approached after dark in a parking deck by an alleged panhandler who cornered her between her car and a wall and said “I just got out of prison for murder” before demanding money.
The first officer to tell me this story claimed the woman was described as “shaking with fear” by a colleague. Indeed, every single person who told this story claimed to have recently heard it from a member of the GPD. Bicycle officer Darren Harmon is not someone I’ve witnessed (or heard of) spreading the story, but when I asked him, he acknowledged having heard it from multiple officers in the last couple of weeks.
On June 11, GPD interim public information officer Ronald Glenn wrote in an email that, “I am still trying to locate a record of this incident in our system, but without more specific information it will be difficult to locate.”
Former Greensboro reporter Joe Killian told me that “this exact story was going around years ago” when he worked for the News & Record. “I was never able to run down any person who actually experienced it, and my memory is that this anecdote floated around each time the panhandling debate heated up or the ordinances were changed.”
The last such change was the April 24 repeal, which happened after city attorney Tom Carruthers advised that the old ordinance was vulnerable to the sort of first amendment lawsuit that recently struck down similar ordinances elsewhere. Debate continues as to what, if anything, will replace it.
One person who believes all such ordinances are both unconstitutional and immoral is Marcus Hyde, an organizer for the Homeless Union of Greensboro, a recently formed group made up of people experiencing homelessness and their advocates. I asked Hyde if he believed the sort of verbal abuse and vulgar gestures I’d witnessed being directed at Kelley should be criminalized. He sent me a statement via Facebook messenger that, with his permission, is reproduced below.
“I don’t get to make up laws that lower the bar for arrest just so I can stop the KKK from coming downtown. The courts have said that you can’t limit speech just because you don’t like it. So if the Klan can come downtown and repetitively say angry things I wish they didn’t say, and if they can cuss while doing it and if they can get close to me and scream obscenities in a threatening way — if all of that is acceptable under the first amendment — then there’s no chance in hell that tying vulgar language or any of the other aspects of the proposed ordinance to solicitation will pass constitutional muster. People have a first amendment right to ask others for help, and no matter how much the rich and powerful hate it, there is no constitutional right to not be uncomfortable by seeing someone else’s poverty.”
Hyde acknowledged that laws can and should address “actual harassment and assault,” but emphasized his conviction that “lowering the bar to make cussing illegal” is extremely dangerous. “The Homeless Union of Greensboro would rather focus on things that actually address the reason why people beg rather than turn the police into an etiquette task force, as was suggested by the police chief when he testified at council that, without a panhandling law, he wouldn’t have any reason to arrest some of the people his officers arrest because they aren’t committing actual crimes.”
Melba Lipscomb, a Greensboro resident who, in her words, is at the moment, “experiencing homelessness,” has written columns on the subject for the Homeless Union of Greensboro and spoken before the Greensboro City Council. Lipscomb described herself in a phone conversation as being “afraid to panhandle,” despite her impoverished circumstances and the lack of any current law against engaging in that activity. “I’m afraid of being approached by the police. Because I am female and black.”
She told me that she opposes any ordinance against “aggressive panhandling” for the same reasons that Hyde does. “If somebody is approached and threatened, there are already laws on the books that cover that. The men who do that are a small minority. It’s like getting catcalls from men working on a building. Women get that regularly and often choose to ignore it and walk on, but if they feel threatened, they need to dial 911. I would encourage them to do it.”
Steve Mitchell, co-owner of Scuppernong Books at 304 S. Elm St., does not share some other business owners desire for an ordinance against “aggressive panhandling.”
“One question is who gets to decide who and what is aggressive and how you actually police these things, but the larger issue for me seems to that people just want the homeless to vanish, that they don’t want to see them, don’t want them around, and that doesn’t seem like a very reasonable response, so I’m not sure what is expected when our policies are to make homeless people disappear.”
His partner Brian Lampkin agreed, adding that he fears the debate may obscure “the way we’ve abdicated our entire mental health system to the streets.” Lampkin also made a statement that Lipscomb and Hyde would probably agree with. “Homelessness is hardest on the homeless; just that simple starting place clarifies a lot.”
But he also said he’s sympathetic to the concerns of both his own female employees and other women working downtown.
“There’s a lot of complications, for sure, including personal safety. It’s just tricky, as somewhat able-bodied men like me tend to make statements about personal safety that maybe we shouldn’t be making, so I won’t. If women feel unsafe, they feel unsafe, there’s no way around that. You can pretend it’s just their suburban sensibilities, but it’s not.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.