A major developer and the president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership both claim that there is an increasing problem with aggressive panhandlers in downtown Winston-Salem. Interviews with those who live, work and frequent downtown paint a different picture.

On Saturday, Darrell Lyles, a black homeless man, walked from table to table on Fourth Street, asking patio diners if they had three dollars to spare.

Lyles is just one of several panhandlers — exact numbers are vague — working the downtown area. He said that he sometimes follows people for money but that he hasn’t seen other panhandlers doing the same thing. Lyles said he does it so he can get food to eat.

“I like to do the same thing they do,” he said, pointing to the diners enjoying their sandwiches and salads on Restaurant Row. “I think it’s nice.”

Bobby Finch, a partner at Triad Commercial Properties, and Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, have recently said that aggressive panhandling is an increasing issue in downtown Winston-Salem.

“I have been shocked by the level of harassment I’ve experienced personally on Fourth Street coming and going from lunch meetings recently,” Finch wrote to City Manager Lee Garrity on July 23. “If I owned a business or property downtown, I would be outraged at the lack of prevention and action to stop the people who are loitering and aggressively panhandling.”

Thiel said in an email to TCB that the city has “seen an increase in aggressive panhandling in downtown over the past year.”

Thiel qualified that “the topic of aggressive panhandling is separate from the topic of homelessness,” adding that the partnership is “asking the city to look at ways to address these stakeholder concerns.”

Reflections of local homeless advocates, a bike-patrol police officer and even a local downtown business owner contradict the notion that there’s any uptick. They say aggressive panhandling is rare and has even gone down over the years.

In an interview with TCB, Mayor Allen Joines described aggressive panhandling as a situation in which a person who is asked for money says no, and the panhandler continues to badger the person or threaten them with physical violence. Joines said that the city has received more complaints recently but that there was no recorded data to back up this claim.

“It’s a concern,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a major problem, but we are taking it very seriously.”

Joines said that only nine police reports have been filed for aggressive panhandling since January. Despite the low reports, Joines said that the city will be immediately increasing their police as well as bike-patrol presence in downtown. Joines hesitated to give an exact count of the number of officers that will be added to the downtown rotation, but said that there would be “a significant presence for a while.”

“I think what we’re seeing is a few individuals who are coming in and being much too aggressive,” he said.

Zak Southerland, a bellhop who has been working for Indigo Hotel for the last five months, said he hasn’t seen any behavior that he would consider aggressive.

“Most people I see are respectable,” he said. “I haven’t seen no problems. We don’t have guests complaining. [Panhandling] does happen a lot. I got asked today. A guy asked for 50 cents and he didn’t follow me. They don’t ask for a lot. You have to understand, anywhere you go, you’re gonna run into someone that’s got a problem. Everybody got problems.”

Krista O’Connell, the organizational administrator for City With Dwellings — a nonprofit organization in the city that works to end homelessness — said many panhandlers and homeless individuals suffer from mental illness, problems with addiction and other unfortunate circumstances. She said she wishes the public knew more about the disadvantaged community instead of fearing them.

“Fear comes from people who don’t have any interactions with homeless people and think they just have to walk straight by them,” O’Connell said.

“They think that people smiling or just saying hello is an act of aggression. There’s a lot of unnecessary fear because our communities aren’t educated on how to interact with homeless folks. These are just human beings and they are no more dangerous than any other human being. We have to have a more compassionate stance and be better informed.”

In his email Finch proposed moving the Campbell Transit Center and Insight Human Services, a drug-treatment center, out of downtown as a way to alleviate the situation.

“The bus station and methadone clinic need to be relocated and are likely creating most of the traffic,” Finch states.

O’Connell said she fundamentally disagrees with the assertion that moving these locations would solve any perceived problems with homelessness or panhandlers.

“That’s very unproductive,” she said. “You’re not providing a solution; you’re just trying not to look at the problem. It’s just this idea of ‘Let’s get these people out of our eyesight.’”

O’Connell said City With Dwellings is planning programming to help the public better understand the circumstances that can lead to homelessness as well as how to interact with those in vulnerable situations.

“The more you interact with these people,” she said. “That fear is gone.”

Winston-Salem resident Mary Hemphill said she has taken the bus downtown every day for the last 25 years. Like others, Hemphill said she has never encountered aggressive panhandling.

“Most of the time, the people I see, they’re going on about their business,” she said. “When they ask me, I don’t feel like it’s aggressive.”

When asked what she thinks about the proposal to move the transit center, Hemphill put it simply.

“The bus station was here first,” she said. “I don’t see how that would solve the problem. There’s still gonna be people downtown.”

Joines said on Tuesday that the city had no plans to move the bus depot.

“I do not believe that the transit center has anything to do with panhandling,” he said. “We will not be even considering moving the transit center.”

As far as the drug clinic, Joines said he isn’t sure what impact, if any, the facility has on aggressive panhandling.

Mayor Allen Joines said that only nine police reports on aggressive panhandling have been filed since January. (file photo)

Phillip Carter, a volunteer with Housing Justice Now — a housing-rights advocacy group in Winston-Salem — said that the changing demographics of downtown causes negative sentiment like the ones expressed in the news piece.

“It’s becoming a community for the upper crust,” Carter said. “It’s more economically sustained. More tourists are coming. It’s like a department, high-end retail store where you don’t want certain individuals coming into your store.”

Carter argues that many of the panhandlers and homeless people in downtown also make an important contribution to the city.

“These people have to pay taxes like sales taxes,” he said. “That comes back to the city to help build up commerce downtown. They have a right to be downtown. They spend their money downtown.”

Carter stated that he has never experienced aggression from panhandlers downtown and thinks that the definition of aggressive is subjective.

“When we have an idea of an individual, we overreact to how they act,” he said. “Maybe they need to check themselves to see if they are overreacting.”

Cpl. JA Henry, a bike-patrol officer who has worked the downtown area for the last seven years, said most of the panhandlers he sees are not aggressive.

“The majority are not aggressive,” he said. “There are a select few that are, maybe under 10. But all have mental-health issues.”

Henry also couldn’t state whether or not the number of panhandlers has increased over the years.

“There’s an ebb and flow,” he said. “It’s not necessarily up or down. It’s more like a wave.”

He said there hasn’t been an increase in the number of reports of aggressive panhandling over the last couple of months.

“It’s the same as it always is,” he said.

Jake Bertch, the manager at King’s Crab Shack on Fourth Street, said he thinks the number of panhandlers has gone down over the last few years.

“It was worse a couple of years ago,” he said. “It goes up and down.”

And while Bertch said that the problem can be bad for business, the Chicago transplant said that it’s an issue most cities have.

On Tuesday, Mayor Joines said the city had decreased chronic homeless by 92 percent in the last 10 years.

“We have a 10-year plan to end homeless,” he said. “There were 200 people who were chronically homeless when we started, and we now have about 32.”

Joines noted that a rapid housing plan helped pair chronically homeless individuals with homes and combined with other resources like job seeking, and substance abuse help, Winston-Salem became one of the first 27 cities in the country to end homelessness among veterans. 

“We were even recognized by then First Lady Michelle Obama,” Joines said.

Samuel Gavurin, the alternate chairman of the Homeless Caucus of Winston-Salem, said the city could do more to help those in need. He said that while resources in the city exist, many of them are preferential and are only available for women or women with children or families.

“A lot of these managers and officials with the city and the county, they have been involved in assisting the homeless for so long that they’ve become almost bureaucratized,” he said. “They’re trying to fit a one-size-fits-all strategy.”

In the meantime, Carter said he hopes that people show a little compassion to those they encounter on the streets.

“Their homelessness is not due to themselves,” he said. “There are other things in this city that could be done to lift homeless folks up. They’re citizens, too.”

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