Officer Brandon Shelley cites panhandlers on Gay Street
On the evening shift in Downtown Knoxville, KPD officer Brandon Shelley has memorized a few faces.
"You can just stand there and watch them do it, and they don't really care," he said.
Shelley is referring to panhandlers, a small group of individuals according to KPD, but a persistent one.
"It picks up this time of year, you have more people coming down[town]," he said. "The people who panhandle for a living, they know that. They know there's going to be more targets, more opportunity for them to be able to make a buck."
Knoxville police, downtown residents, and local business owners are working to solve the panhandling problem, but say there is no easy solution.
In 2006, the city passed an ordinance prohibiting aggressive panhandling. According the Central Business Improvement District (CBID), the ordinance makes it illegal to ask for money:
- After sunset and before sunrise
- By repeatedly asking a person
- Using abusive language or profanity
- In an aggressive manner in a public area
- In parking lots or garages owned by the City of Knoxville
- On private property if the owner has a sign posted or has asked the person to stop
- From motorists in traffic
- From persons waiting in line to be admitted to a commercial establishment
- By falsely representing why they are seeking money
- Or within 20 feet of: a crosswalk, an entrance or exit of any bank or check cashing business, an ATM, public restrooms, pay phones, sidewalk café or outdoors dining area, a bus stop or bus station
From January 2012 to April 2013, the city of Knoxville had 449 panhandling violations on record. Among those, 382 (or 85 percent) had outstanding balances. The total outstanding balance sat at $43,492.45 at the end of April 2013.
"They don't have the money to pay these, and when they don't get paid, city court just stacks a bill on them. That's all that really happens," Shelley said. "As much as we can do to combat it, it's still kind of hard to fight it."
Many argue the solution is not law enforcement, but rather, educating the public not to give money.
"When you give money to someone on the streets, chances are more likely than not that they're lying to you," explained Angie Sledge, Vice President of Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM). "And if the person is saying they just need money for food, there's always food available. There's never an excuse for anyone to go hungry in Knoxville."
Sledge said a panhandler can make hundreds of dollars each day on the street, a success rate that offers little incentive to quit.
"You're enabling them to stay on the streets rather than seek the help they need to end their homelessness," she said. "We always appreciate the kindhearted person who wants to do something to make a difference, but let's be honest -- handing somebody a buck or two on the streets is not going to change their life. You can, however, be a part of changing lives when you support the organizations or the ministries that work daily and effective proven programs to end homelessness."
Sarah Alsobrooks and her husband, Sean, feel the same way. She and her husband moved to Knoxville a few years ago to start KnoxLife, a downtown ministry, and have always lived downtown. The couple also owns Remedy Coffee.
"Sean and I were always going to the ATM and giving money out because that was our heart," she said. Eventually they learned it wasn't helping.
"We've adopted the philosophy that now we want to support the ministries that are already, currently helping."
CBID has recently hosted meetings with downtown residents, business owners, and police to discuss ideas for educating the public on panhandlers.
Several MBA students from the University of Tennessee who are studying the issue offered solutions at use in other cities. Those include signs posted in parking garages, discouraging the public from donating money. Some cities have set up parking meter-like devices, where people who wish to donate can drop change, but the money will go to shelters and other agencies that assist the homeless and hungry, instead of handing the money directly to an individual.