Christopher Gadget says he has lived on the streets for 11 years. He stands with his dog Bear at the intersection of River Hills Road and Wood Avenue, hoping to receive money from motorists. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Sure, the city of Asheville probably needs to take another crack at controlling panhandling, as it seems to be in one of its periodic upticks.

But man, I’d take a look at that “visitor leakage” first. I half-jest.

I’m referring to a recent email from Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority President & CEO Victoria “Vic” Isley and Board Chair Brenda Durden in which they noted July lodging occupancy was down six points from the last pre-pandemic year. The last calendar year was generally pretty gonzo for tourism here – the email noted visitors spent a record $2.88 billion in Buncombe County in 2022.


“While we celebrate the success of the last calendar year, we’ve also been hearing from businesses that sales have been down during the first half of 2023,” Isley and Durden said. “Many local businesses rely on strong visitor spending in July and October to power businesses through shoulder seasons, to keep their establishments open, and their staff employed.”

Visitation has slowed from last year’s peak, they further noted, and national and local trends come into play.

“Building off of the economic concerns and luxury trends shared in June, geolocation data shows visitor leakage to neighboring counties as a result of real and perceived safety issues in our community,” Isley and Durden said. “Explore Asheville’s marketing team is adjusting our process and messaging to inspire domestic travel to Buncombe County this fall.”

Honestly, who among us has not had some “visitor leakage” from time to time?

OK, terrible joke. This is a serious issue for Asheville, especially this “real and perceived safety issues” bit, which plays into the aforementioned panhandling issue.

Asheville is struggling with an image problem these days as a place that’s beautiful and quirky but also overrun with homeless people, panhandlers, and those exhibiting sometimes bizarre behavior, as we reported in our Down Town series.

In this milieu, Asheville City Council is — drum roll, please — adjusting its panhandling ordinance.

Sure, that’s unfair to make it sound like that’s all Asheville is doing. City staff and the elected City Council are well aware of the public safety problems downtown, and they’ve taken actions this spring and summer to get more public safety personnel on the streets and address issues ranging from cleanliness to more help for people going through a medical or psychological crisis.

But the tweaks to the city’s panhandling ordinance have taken center stage of late, and that will continue as council considers the measures at upcoming meetings.

With this in mind, the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety, which formed last October to support local law enforcement, invited Asheville City Attorney Brad Branham, Asheville Police Deputy Chief Michael Lamb, and Buncombe District Attorney Todd Williams to speak at its Aug. 29 meeting.

Panhandling is a problem in Asheville, as it is in many cities, and has been for decades. I remember writing columns about it when Asheville changed its laws two decades ago, and people on both sides made the same arguments then as now: Panhandling makes visitors and locals feel unsafe, endangers the panhandlers themselves, and can lead to ugly confrontations; and on the flip side it’s a right protected under the constitutional guarantee to free speech, and some people simply need the money to get by.

In short, it makes a lot of people feel unsafe, but it’s not illegal to ask for help. Also, don’t be heartless.

Asheville City Council voted 6-1 in late August to approve changes to the law, but it will require a second reading.

The changes include technical tweaks. Instead of banning panhandling “in close proximity” to a person, the changes specify that distance as eight feet. Another change would be the addition of a ban on panhandlers using “fighting words” when asking for money and changing “profane or abusive” language to “obscene or threatening.”

As Asheville Watchdog previously reported, the more dramatic changes, likely to come before council in October, could make it illegal for motorists to give money from their vehicles, and the city may add the River Arts District and Haywood Road in West Asheville as designated “high traffic zones,” joining Biltmore Village and much of downtown, which already have that designation.

“In high traffic zones, panhandlers may hold signs but may not verbally ask for money,” my colleague John Reinan reported. “They must stay on sidewalks and can’t solicit money after dark.”

City Attorney Brad Branham // Credit: City of Asheville

At last week’s coalition meeting, Branham told the 60 people gathered that the city needs to update the 20-year-old ordinance in part to comply with recent court rulings. Branham also stressed that the city regulates panhandling but doesn’t ban it, as that would be unconstitutional and a violation of free speech.

“But it was very clear to us that this was a set of ordinances that had not been updated by the city in, depending on which section you looked at, in more than 20 years,” Branham said. “That’s a very, very dusty ordinance in our world.”

So, the first reason was to remain in compliance with decisions from higher courts.

“Now, the second reason that we started to look at that was we realized that we’re getting more and more complaints, and there’s a growing interest around panhandling within the city,” Branham said, adding that the city has to have ordinances that are “clear, concise, and directed at the issue.”

The ordinances also have to be legally defensible and enforceable.

“We don’t want to give our police department a weak foundation to work from,” Branham said, adding that the second council hearing on the tweaks will take place Sept. 12.

The realities of enforcement

As you can imagine, in a city whose police force is down from full staffing by 39 percent — Lamb noted that was a 1-point improvement from earlier this year — panhandling is not going to be job one.

“Panhandling is definitely something that we get a lot of complaints on,” Lamb told the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety. “We have to triage those complaints because, especially with limited staff, we have to make sure that we’re first and foremost addressing violent crime, and being able to show presence in areas where violent crime, especially gun crime, and shootings occur.”

“However, panhandling is something that we still have to address, because of the safety issue surrounding it. Typically, when we get panhandling complaints, or we get a call to dispatch, if there’s officers available, they will dispatch an officer to that area to address it.”

The safety issue, as some in attendance noted, is that panhandlers can become agitated, loud, and abusive, which is frightening for workers, diners, tourists, and locals. And sometimes such behavior escalates to a physical confrontation.

Lamb noted that officers typically do not arrest panhandlers, unless the situation has become violent or the person has outstanding warrants for other crimes.

Asheville Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Lamb told the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety that officers typically issue citations or warnings for panhandling because an arrest can consume one to three hours of an officer’s time, and the department is severely understaffed. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

“Most of the time when officers respond, they will issue a citation to that person,” Lamb said.

The reason for that comes back to manpower. If an officer does make an arrest in these cases, “that typically takes that officer off the road for one to two to three hours,” Lamb said, adding that the wait at the jail factors in, as well as whether the person’s property has to be secured or if property has to go into the evidence room. “So that’s why oftentimes a citation is issued and that person is released.”

Lamb acknowledged that a lot of panhandlers are right back at it after the warning.

“What we see is a lot of people will go down the road, and then they’ll come right back to that same spot,” Lamb said. “Same thing if a warning is given as well.”

One trend police noticed in 2021 was that a lot of panhandlers “would oftentimes have warrants for their arrest for other charges, so that an arrest would take place there.”

“But typically, if it’s just panhandling, again, a citation will be issued, because we don’t want that officer to get tied up, which increases our response time for other higher priority calls for service,” Lamb said. “But yes, it’s definitely a challenge being able to consistently enforce that issue.”

The coalition asked District Attorney Williams about his perspective on sentencing guidelines and what the realities are when it comes to panhandling and enforcement.

Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams told the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety that a new state law will help with repeat offenders by possibly allowing higher bonds, but panhandling remains a relatively low level Class 3 misdemeanor. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

“Per North Carolina General statutes, any criminal ordinance that is passed by the city is a Class 3 misdemeanor,” Williams said. “So that means you’re stuck with basically 20 days in custody, maximum, for one offense, or for 20 offenses.”

And, as The Watchdog previously reported, offenders often find the justice system for these minor offenses is a revolving door. Another reality is that magistrates are unlikely to set a high bond or even any bond on a panhandler.

“I mean, we’ve had folks released on bond that have been violent criminals,” Williams said. “So, if we’re getting very low bond set on matters that involve bloodletting, we’re not going to get bond set on panhandling, right?”

But Williams did point to what he called a “light at the end of the tunnel” — House Bill 813, “The Pretrial Integrity Act,” which passed through the General Assembly this year and goes into effect Oct. 1.

The legislation most importantly addresses a slate of felonies that will require bond to be set by a District Court judge, not a magistrate, Williams noted. First-degree murder already falls in this category, but crimes that will be added to this list include second-degree murder, rape, robbery, and human trafficking, Williams noted.

Magistrates, who often set bond for criminal defendants, are appointed, while judges are elected.

Williams acknowledged that panhandling, obviously, is not a violent crime. But HB 813 has more to it.

“There’s a second provision of House Bill 813 that provides that if an individual has been released on conditions of release and then reoffends while they’re out on release, they’re subject to the same procedure — the magistrate cannot set the bond,” Williams said. “So if they’re arrested, at 12 noon today, they’re going to be put on the calendar tomorrow.”

In other words, the District Court judge will be able to look at what they’ve been arrested for, and if it’s for panhandling 15 times, that could factor into a higher bond and a hold in jail instead of a visit to the revolving door.

In short, HB 813 is “designed to put a stop to and impose conditions of release that will provide some accountability,” Williams said. 

This will provide some help, but it’s not a panacea.

“(City) ordinances are always going to be Class 3 misdemeanors until the legislature down in Raleigh tells us (differently),” Williams said.

‘A more robust’ law, and legal ‘gamesmanship’

Branham said what the city is shooting for is a “kind of specificity which didn’t previously exist” in the panhandling code.

“So we have a much more robust, what I would call regulation, around aggressive panhandling,” he said.

Williams offered another interesting twist on this — the First Amendment and legal gamesmanship over what actually is panhandling versus what is freedom of expression. For example, someone may say something like, “I need dinner,” and a person interprets that as aggressive panhandling.

Is there a violation of the law? Under First Amendment protections, the accused panhandling may say they were just making a statement of fact. 

“This is what comes up in our court cases,” Williams said. “It’s gamesmanship played by lawyers in courts in front of judges. So these cases can get in the weeds and get very tricky, unnecessarily.”

Belligerence from panhandlers, which the city’s tweaked code will address, could be a gray area, too, because it allows for interpretation.

The upshot of all of this is panhandling regulations are labor-intensive to enforce and sometimes tough to prosecute, and the city cannot trample constitutional rights. Even with the new city ordinance, and the state law Williams touted, don’t expect panhandling to go away.

So, is it worth it for the city to spend so much time on it?

I’d say yes, because it is a real problem that has worsened during and after the pandemic, and it contributes to the perception of Asheville being unsafe. Business owners, locals, and tourists have all complained about aggressive, ubiquitous panhandling, and the city shouldn’t just say, “Welp, nothing we can do about it.”

It’s better to try something than do nothing and watch the city continue to slide into “the place that killed the golden goose,” as several business owners have told me.

Sure, the city has much bigger fish to fry. This list is almost comically long — the critical need for more mental health services and beds, a dearth of affordable housing, and that huge gap of officers at the APD immediately come to mind.

But this is a start, and I applaud the six members of council who showed support for the changes for being brave enough to make the effort.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at To show your support for this vital public service go to

18 replies on “Opinion: Asheville has much bigger fish to fry, but panhandling changes are better than doing nothing”

  1. Who are the six council member who showed support for the ordinance. Let me guess. None of them were named Kim Roney.

  2. These changes will do nothing to curb these issues, maybe we can hire another consultant to tell us how to solve this problem.

    Our progressive liberal city leaders are absolutely clueless at solving endless problems facing this community.

    We are on a run away train to nowhere.

    1. So glad the City is considering doing something about this whole problem. Giving money to people does not help them for longer than a few hours. Consider donating your money to a place that is trying to make a real difference in their lives, like ABCCM or Rescue Mission or Salvation Army. Most of the money goes for drugs, why have that on your conscious? It only makes you feel good for a minute and you drive off. Look at the poor animals in the hot sun, no water, even less food. City Council please vote this in and go on to more important stuff.

  3. Panhandling may be a right, but it’s also a blight and a safety issue when many panhandlers certainly appear to me to be drug users or mentally unstable. On a couple of occasions I have had panhandlers at the base of I-40 exit ramps banging on my car window when I ignore them and am unable to move because of traffic. It’s a very unsettling at the very least.

    1. First Amendment protects speech, but the government can still place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions for protection of speakers and listeners alike. Harassing you by banging on your car is unlawful. Why are there so many beggars in Asheville? Strays will hang around if you keep feeding them, yes?

  4. It’s up to the people to deal with this and its simple- quit supporting it. Stop giving money out! If people’s signs claim hunger- give canned goods instead. If cash is what they really want, they’ll complain to you. I have offered to take “hungry” people to lunch, not one has taken me up on it… ever! They said they would prefer cash.
    I would rather work a job than stand on a hot highway all day with a sign so it must be lucrative. It’s certainly tax free.
    Maybe if these individuals were taxed some kind of fee daily to stand there and beg, it might reduce the problem.
    As for the panhandlers of downtown- the same. using sidewalks and roads paid for by the public to make your living- pay a use tax.
    As for the buskers, they provide something in return- entertainment! And you are not asked to give money. Good buskers, tip generously!

  5. Please move A-Hope to a new location away from our downtown and stop feeding people under the Lexington Avenue Bridge. Those people are hanging out at the bottom of the skate park (near the kids) and shooting up and leaving their needles and trash everywhere. They also get their drugs in the morning outside at A-Hope and then walk back to town flipping out everywhere and causing issues for the rest of us who mind the normal expectations of societal rules. They are literally ruining downtown Asheville and businesses on all the major corridors. The panhandling is aggressive, nasty and threatening. They also panhandle at Trader Joe’s. I have seen young white, black and brown women avoid them and cross the street because some of them are very aggressive. Merrimon Avenue and Tunnel Road have vagrancy issues galore. They also steel carts and leave them all over the city.

    We have these mobile needle organizations that travel around giving the addicts fresh needles so they can easily continue their addiction. Same with the organizations under the bridge bringing food.

    Make people go get services. We have plenty of places they can get a free meal. We have the beds. They just need to mind the rules.

    Maybe these organizations should buy a van and take them and drop them off where they can attend a meeting, get a meal and force them to stop panhandling.

    Anyone who has dealt with addiction knows these people need to be forced to either go to jail (with a medical detox) or go to rehab (with a medical detox) and work a program every single day. Giving these people housing without any expectations or oversight is going to be a total disaster. Management of the new Low Barrier Housing Tiny Village, the Days Inn on Tunnel road & the Step UP at Ramada Inn… ALL BETTER BE TIGHTLY MANAGED. No one wants this in their neighborhood. All those folks who support this type of housing literally are not remotely impacted by these new housing units coming in.

    Let’s stick the next one in their neighborhood and see how much they support it? Let these people toss their needles in their kids park or front yard. Let them deal with addicts wandering into their yards, driveways and streets. Everyone is an uber progressive until they are confronted with crime.

    It’s time for Asheville grow up. Yes enforce panhandling! But apparently our jail has a new “jail reduction” grant. Good Lord, someone save us from ourselves.

    Asheville is truly going downhill fast. Yes, enforce panhandling. It’s a no brainer. They are using this $$$ for their drug & alcohol habit. They don’t care about the bleeding hearts. All they care about is their next fix.

  6. Sad state of affairs for Asheville. Upset and afraid residents and a city reluctant to ever really change anything at all. Something is going to have to give soon. The frogs are finally realizing they’re being boiled.

  7. Trying to enforce this by arresting or citing panhandlers is a losing game. There should be a $100.00 fine for anyone who gives money to a panhandler — It would be more enforceable, would generate revenue for the City, and have quicker payoff.

  8. Is door to door “knock and beg” panhandling legal in Asheville. Can a citizen place a “No Soliciting” sign beside the sidewalk to make it not legal?

  9. No one is looking at the real issue behind the panhandlers. According to many people, this is a criminal ring. If you observe the panhandlers you will see they work in shifts. Many of them are now young, able bodied men.

    People have followed them when they leave and discovered that they are not all homeless, and they take the money to the meet point and get their drugs.

    One business owner went so far as to say that this is a form of human trafficking.

    This problem is so much bigger than panhandling.

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