WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Some cities have tried to address the panhandling issue by legalizing it all together. We traveled to Greensboro and Raleigh to see how it worked and if it was effective.
Anyone seeking a permit must have a valid ID and can not have any outstanding warrants, history of violent crimes or be on the sex offender registry. A permit is good for one calendar year and is re-vetted at the end of the year to ensure there is not criminal background still.
Legal panhandlers must display their permit.
There are 20 restrictions on when, where and how panhandling can occur and any violation of those rules can result in a permit being pulled. These include not being intoxicated while panhandling, no begging near financial institutions (bank, ATM, etc) or daycares, etc.
"The point is as a city, as law enforcement as all other stakeholders is to come to some type of workable solution," said Sergeant Korey Johnson who patrols the downtown division. "Programs like this are teaching people how to fish but we want them to continue on and not use the solicitation permit as a way to sustain but a way to transition from not having to having."
Driving through both Raleigh and Greensboro, we saw the most panhandlers near highway off/on ramps and outside shopping centers.
Of those, we were able to engage in conversation. Their support for the permit process was universal although not for the 20 restrictions. The rules, they said, made it nearly impossible to make money.
After all, posting up near a bank or close to a downtown business is far more profitable than most other locations.
Their other biggest gripe is the excessive competition. Word has gotten out that these cities offer a way to make money begging which means competition for every available corner.
We met James Roberts outside of a shopping center holding a sign and a permit. He told us he was begging to fund his sister's medical care.
"I made $2 yesterday," Roberts said, sounding defeated. "Took a $1.50 to get home. I only made 50-cents yesterday."
He said the most he'd ever made panhandling was just $35 and that he'd had to fight fake permit holders and traveling panhandlers for his spot.
"There are people out here making more than doctors panhandling," said a panhandler who wanted to be called Jerry Heart. "They'll go from North Carolina, Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, all around and just collect money - a tax free career."
Legalization rubber stamps a means of making income but unlike other "jobs" these panhandlers are not required to report income. The idea seemed advantageous but also unfair to even some of the panhandlers.
"That's another crazy thing about it, I haven't made bunches and bunches of money but in the month-and-a-half I've been out here I've made hundreds and
hundreds of dollars," said Heart, who once worked as a contractor but lost his job. "If I stayed out here for 12 or 13 months I'm going to make a lot of money which should be taxed like everybody else gets taxed."
It was Heart who also felt that his panhandling provided something of a public service to the community at large. He pointed out that when people gave him money they, in turn, felt good about themselves. He considered that a 'win-win' for all, including the local government who could now keep tabs on him.
"You can keep up with your homeless population," he explained. "I'm sure the homeless population doesn't want to hear that, but you can keep up with them. It makes it a lot easier for law enforcement if something happens, like one stabs another because they know who to ask, who to talk to. So I think it's a good idea."
From Elizabeth King's perspective, who for a long time panhandled outside Wilmington's Whole Foods, the advantage to legalization would be minimizing the number of tickets and court cases that the crime generates.
"What's the big deal?" she asked. "I think with Wilmington, we're a historic town with all these tourists that come through, so they don't want it to look like we have poor people here."
Unlike Wilmington, law enforcement and panhandlers in both Greensboro and Raleigh said their begging was not heavily driven by heroin.
It's because of the narcotic connection that in our area, you are unlikely to meet many offices in favor of legalization.
"If we make it legal you're just going to have more of a problem," said Detective Allison Jehreis. "You will have more people doing it. It will encourage people that have an addiction to have a way to earn money to provide drugs for their addiction."
"Straight legalization without interaction is not beneficial," said Michael Page at the syringe exchange. "That's just keeping them from getting arrested but it doesn't address these problems or needs."
Page would argue it's more appropriate to offer a panhandler a meal or services (shelter, help in signing up for food stamps, clothing, etc). Easiest of all would be to stock your car with gift cards you're able to get at the drive thru and pass them out to those holding a sign, saying they are in need.
Cecelia Peers is currently directing HUD's "10-Year Plan to End Homelessness" that is about to hit its expiration date.
Peers noted that one of the biggest challenges to helping someone get off the street is adjusting what they consider their 'normal.'
The longer a person lives in a transient situation, the more accustom they become to living day-to-day or in survival mode. It becomes harder and harder to re-learn how to live in a structured world where rent, utilities and grocery shopping are a standard part of living.
"If you are going to give money to someone on the street you don't know how they will use it no matter what they write on a sign," she said. "So you have to be aware that once you hand it over they're making the choose how to use it just like you make the choice on how to use it every day."
If you want greater insurance on your dollar, she suggests giving it to a vetted organization that supports the community outreach you believe in.
Beyond a donation, Page suggests exercising your vote.
"If you want to help vote for reform, vote for more beds at the detox center," he pleaded. "Give money to community outreach programs, give it to harm reduction that's supplying naloxone, give it to agencies where you know your dollar is going to be spent to rehabilitate somebody. Not just 'Oh I feel good because I gave Johnny a buck.'"