A reported increase in aggressive panhandling downtown poses a problem not just for those who are being accosted, but for the entire downtown community. As we consider the proper response to the aggressive behavior, though, it’s best not to be too hasty. We certainly shouldn’t condemn accommodations that serve important purposes, especially when they may not be related to the problem in the first place.
“(T)his summer has seen a significant increase in aggressive panhandling in Winston-Salem,” Jason Thiel, the president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, said in an email to Mayor Allen Joines, Mark Owens, president of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, and Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem.
“We have had people followed and walked up to very quickly,” Thiel told the Journal’s Wesley Young. “People present themselves and will not take a simple no for an answer. People feel they (the panhandlers) are getting very close to them sometimes. There are threats, or just popping up out of nowhere. People are aggressively pursuing on many occasions.”
Thiel’s comments were in response to an email circulated among city leaders by Bobby Finch, a partner in Triad Commercial Properties, in which he complained about aggressive panhandling. “I have been shocked by the level of harassment I’ve experienced personally on Fourth Street coming and going from lunch meetings recently,” he wrote, concluding that he “would hate to see all the progress that has been made downtown be undermined by allowing this unacceptable activity to continue.”
Finch suggested moving the Clark Campbell Transportation Center and a drug-treatment center on Fourth Street, saying both draw panhandlers.
Aggressive panhandling is a valid concern. Let’s face it: We want commerce and tourism downtown, but aggressive panhandling makes things less pleasant for residents and visitors alike. Even for the most compassionate, accommodating person, this type of behavior can be off-putting.
It also seems lost on aggressive panhandlers that they’re not helping their cause.
But as Joines noted, panhandling is a problem that “kind of waxes and wanes” over the years. An increase in aggressive behavior may be temporary.
At this point, it’s no reason to uproot a public accommodation on which many workers in Winston-Salem depend, or a facility that helps people better their lives by beating substance abuse. Sgt. Kevin Bowers of the Downtown Bike Patrol told the Journal that he couldn’t say that either the bus station or the drug-treatment facility was the source of problems.
“At the transportation center, the vast majority of people are not causing problems on a daily basis,” Bowers said. He said that he knows of no cases of drug-treatment clients engaging in panhandling.
So, what to do?
Bowers suggests calling the police when uncomfortable situations arise. “Some of the information we get is days old, and that makes it difficult to stay on top of things,” he said. “We would prefer that if people are a victim of that, or a party to that, if they see something, report it when it is happening.”
Conscientious people may also consider increasing donations to organizations that help people get their lives together, like the United Way of Forsyth County.
And though Winston-Salem’s downtown is safe, it doesn’t hurt for pedestrians to be aware of their surroundings and take steps to avoid unpleasant situations.
If the problem persists, it may be necessary to increase police bike patrols or take other steps. But for now, let’s not overreact.