Last November, Keysha Walker Taylor was walking in Uptown when a red-and-white sign caught her eye. The sign had a graphic depicting a hand giving a coin to another hand with a red circle and slash on top of it, the general prohibition symbol meant to express that something is not permitted. The sign read, “It’s OK to say no to panhandlers. Handouts don’t help. Contribute to the solution. Give to local charities. RealChangeCLT.org.”
Taylor tweeted a picture of the sign, tagging the city’s official Twitter account and voicing her disgust. “Who approved this?” she wrote. “@CLTgov I’m under the impression this organization is intentionally trying to mimic City approved signage. Please remove this.”
She tagged Mayor Vi Lyles and other Charlotte City Council members in follow-up tweets, but never got a response from the city, so a week later she took matters into her own hands.
“The city didn’t take the signs down, so I ended up taking them down myself,” she said matter-of-factly when we met at Coco & the Director at Trade and Tryon streets in Uptown. She pointed out the window. “There was one on this corner, there was one right in front of Starbucks [on North Tryon Street]. This is the only area I frequent. But if I see another one, I guarantee, they’ll come down.”
According to Charlotte’s municipal code, it is illegal to beg, solicit or panhandle on publicly owned sidewalks or in public parks. There are a list of other prohibitions on panhandling; no soliciting within 20 feet of a bank or ATM, on a public transportation vehicle or after dark, for example. It’s also illegal to solicit money “after the person to whom the solicitation is directed has made a negative response, either verbally, by physical sign, by attempting to leave the presence of the person soliciting, or by other negative indication.”
Taylor brought the signs to a town hall meeting hosted that month by outgoing city council District 2 representative Justin Harlow and incoming representative Malcolm Graham, but was met with confusion about where the signs came from.
“I would be curious to know what organizations are involved,” she said. “It seems that no one really wanted to take responsibility for it.”
According to the website, “Real Change is an initiative that asks people not to give money to panhandlers. It also directs panhandlers or those in crisis to call 211, or seek help from partnered human services organizations like Charlotte Rescue Mission, Men’s Shelter, Salvation Army, Urban Ministry Center, and United Way of the Central Carolinas.”
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is also a partner, and multiple sources told us the department is responsible for putting the signs in Uptown, though representatives did not return our request for comment before Queen City Nerve’s press deadline.
The coalition was convened by Charlotte Center City Partners (CCCP). According to Moira Quinn, senior vice president and chief operating officer at CCCP, the group was formed based on a need expressed by people working in the field.
“At Center City Partners, we are not experts in this topic, so we depend on our special services partners and CMPD,” Quinn said. “We convene, and it is our job to support. We depend on them to give us advice on how to make this work, but we also know that homelessness and panhandling, which are two different issues, are both urban issues, and so for that reason, this is something that’s important to us and it’s important to our stakeholders.”
As the board chair for the African American Community Foundation, a microgrant program that promotes economic self-reliance, equal opportunity, leadership and cultural awareness among Charlotte’s African-American community, Taylor has dedicated much of her work to charitable philanthropy like what RealChange CLT is asking people to contribute to. However, her problem is with the hypocrisy of taking away a person’s agency to ask for money themselves in the same way the organizations are asking for money.
“We categorize activities based on the person that is performing that activity,” she said. “That’s really where my issue with the signs comes in. To the poor, how do you define panhandling? It is someone standing or being mobile, asking another person for money to fulfill whatever needs that they have? How do we define solicitation? It’s literally what the Salvation Army does every holiday season … So it’s only OK if I give money to the charity who is then in charge of giving money to those in need, but it’s not OK if I give directly to the person in need, or if the person in need asks for it directly on their behalf so they can do what they want with it?”
Rev. Tony Marciano has worked for 23 years with Charlotte Rescue Mission, the goal for which is “transforming lives in the name of Christ by serving people struggling with addiction, poverty, or hopelessness with the goal of returning them to society as productive, self-sufficient citizens.” He stands behind the campaign to end panhandling, though he does not approve of the signs that were reportedly put up by CMPD.
“I would not have approved the signs if they had asked for my opinion,” Marciano told Queen City Nerve. “I think we could have communicated the message in a friendlier manner to encourage people not to give money to folks that are panhandling.”
According to Marciano, what he’s seen during his time working with the homeless population has convinced him that giving to panhandlers is wrong.
“The message that I’ve been trying to say is help people achieve their potential,” he said, “and we know that most of the people that are panhandling are either struggling with addictions or they’ve been set up by transitional housing facilities where they have to raise $75 a day to sleep there that night … Let’s move them to seeking services so that we can help them achieve their potential.”
Marciano says he regularly polls those people receiving services at Charlotte Rescue Mission and asks whether they could raise enough money to support a drug addiction daily even if they woke up with no money. According to Marciano, about 85% of the people he polls say they could raise enough money to use every 90 minutes or so and continue on in active addiction.
For Taylor, the partnership between the city-funded CMPD and faith-based organizations like Charlotte Rescue Mission and Urban Ministry Center is a problem.
“If CMPD provided funds for a private initiative, I have a problem with that,” she said. “I have a problem with my tax money going toward these private religious-based initiatives, because that’s also saying that I agree with that ideology.”
We spoke with one man, who wanted to only be identified by his nickname Ghost, who says he’s been panhandling in and around Uptown since 2011. Ghost’s daily goal is to raise $60, which he says covers food for him and his dog, as well as medicine for the many maladies he’s dealt with in recent years, including multiple heart attacks and having his big toe amputated. He said that six months ago he had a heart attack at the corner where he often stands at North Davidson and East 12th streets, and was able to get a driver to call 911 for him.
Ghost said he swears off street drugs, but admits that drug addiction runs rampant in the homeless community. He said some of his neighbors in the encampment where he lives smoke crack and get the money for it through panhandling.
Ghost sees his panhandling as a form of protest. He said he’s an Army veteran who has been cut off from the financial help he once received from the government.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it because it’s freedom of speech and it’s our way to let people know that we need something and we can’t get it from the resources that we already have,” he said. “The resources are tapped so we have to count on society.”