Panhandling in Downtown Knoxville Revisited

panhandling image


It’s a tired topic to some of us. The first time I wrote about panhandling was in November 2010 after starting this blog in June of that year. I ran a series of sorts, talking to downtown ministers and professionals from KARM and Volunteer ministries. They all said the same thing: Don’t give money to panhandlers. Some also said not to give food, but to direct them to area homeless services.

I think the last time I broached the topic was in February of 2013. That was when I first spoke of the cycle that I fear we are witnessing: UT students and people from outside downtown give money to panhandlers who persist and grow in number. I think most of us who live downtown have learned better. The ultimate concern for me is that after giving to and thus growing the numbers of panhandlers, these same people will stop coming downtown because they don’t like being harassed by panhandlers.

I think it’s a topic worth revisiting for several reasons. For one, we’re about to have an influx of new neighbors at Marble Alley and The Daniel and they have to learn what we had to learn when we moved downtown: Don’t do it. Additionally, my readership is much larger (by about four times) than it was three years ago, so there are a number of you who missed those conversations. Finally, it seems to me that I’m hit up more often than ever – though I said the same thing three years ago, so maybe I’m just weary of the whole business.

Market Square, Knoxville, July 2015
Market Square, Knoxville, July 2015

I’m afraid my frustration with the several people who hit me up on a regular basis has become obvious. While walking on the street with Urban Girl recently, one such woman approached us. I knew what she wanted – she’s asked for money from me dozens of times. I said, “No,” rather firmly before she had a chance to start. She turned away and Urban Girl looked at me puzzled. I tried to explain, but it’s hardly the compassion for others I’d like to model for her.

I should be clear about a couple of things. First, we aren’t special in dealing with this problem. It happens everywhere, though for whatever reason I don’t seem to be approached nearly as much in other cities. Maybe it’s because they are larger and the panhandlers more spread out. That leads to the second point: Panhandlers are found all over the city and region. Numerous panhandlers work the exit ramps from I-40 out west. Large parking lots out west also seem to be prime real estate for those in the profession.

Other cities have tried a range of ideas. I found a colorful parking meter in the middle of Cathedral Square in Mobile, Alabama. A sign indicated that if you felt charitable toward those around you to place your change in the meter, but not to give it to panhandlers. I was panhandled a few minutes after noticing the meter, so my small experience didn’t endorse it as a success.

I found a report by the Urban Institute which detailed three city’s attempts. Madison, Wisconsin had some success passing a strict ordinance, spending time educating panhandlers and, ultimately, designating a couple of spots where panhandling was allowed while disallowing all others along a particular street. It reduced panhandling dramatically. Vancouver, Canada dealt with a problematic area by eliminating alcoves and benches that supported the panhandlers. Evanston, Illinois had some success by putting people on the street to educate anyone they saw giving that it was not a good idea. That reduced their problem slightly.

Gay Street, Memorial Day, Knoxville, 2014
Gay Street, Memorial Day, Knoxville, 2014

Knoxville’s panhandling ordinance, which covers only the city gives a detailed list of forbidden circumstances for panhandling:

  • 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 the are seeking money

I’ve experienced at least six of those nine.

Further, the ordinance specifies that individuals may not be within 20 feet of:

  • A crosswalk
  • An entrance or exit of any bank or check cashing business
  • An ATM
  • Public restrooms
  • Pay Phones
  • Sidewalk cafe or outdoor dining area
  • A bus stop or bus station

Recently added to the list of forbidden spots: Within 20 feet of:

  • The entrance to a residence
  • The entrance to a business

Of the eight forbidden places, I’ve experienced it or witnessed it at six of the eight. The one which bothers me the most – and I tend to be a bit confrontational is panhandling people eating at an outdoor dining area. It happens quite a bit. The only place on the list that seems to be working well is “within twenty feet of a pay phone.”

I’d love to conclude with a great solution, but I don’t have one. I do feel strongly that the city or CBID should post clever signs with some of the above limitations or more simply just signs saying you are damaging your city and not helping solve any problems by giving. I also like the idea of “educators” in the most central parts of downtown talking to people who give. I realize enforcement is difficult, but anyone seeing violations of the above is encouraged to call the non-emergency police line and report it (865-215-4010). We need to do something.