[image-1] John spends a few hours every day asking for money. He’s one of the area’s more than 400 homeless residents and can usually be found near the Highway 17 off-ramp on East Bay Street. Most of the time he holds a cardboard sign with a crudely written message punctuated with a “Thanks God bless.” He prefers not to give his last name. He says he just goes by “John.” When asked how much he makes every day, he says, “Enough. I don’t have much big bills anyway. Not like I’m paying for electricity.” John has a pretty good sense of humor, all things considered.
Sunday morning was the first time John returned to his spot on East Bay Street since the city’s new “panhandling” ordinance went into effect on Friday. The ordinance prohibits the passing and receiving of any item from any occupant of a vehicle that is located in a lane of travel on the roadway. Those found in violation face a possible fine of $1,092 or 30 days in jail. The city calls the ordinance a way to promote the free flow of traffic and ensure the safety of pedestrians near roadways. John calls it a form of harassment. To get around the new ban, he’s moved down the street a few yards and placed signs around notifying drivers that it’s legal to hand things over in nearby parking lots. John says the change has slowed things down for him a lot. After three hours, he’s collected $1 and a few used clothes. Surprisingly, John doesn’t sound bitter about the new rules, even if they don’t really work in his favor. Overall, John seems like a man who takes whatever life hands him.
“It won’t be as good as it was,” he says. “But it’ll be enough to survive. And that’s what matters.”
Treating a symptom
In what they are calling an act of civil disobedience, a handful of young protesters gathered at the corner of King and Calhoun streets Friday to protest the new ordinance. The group carried signs declaring the new rules an act of class warfare and chanted Henry David Thoreau quotes at passersby.
[image-2]“We view it as they wanted to make it illegal for people to fly the signs asking for money, but they can’t do that, so they had to find a way around it,” said Andrew Crawford, one of the protesters. “They had to find a way around that, so they made it illegal for you to hand things from cars and called it a safety hazard, which we believe in the power of the people and their ability to know when they are in danger. It went into effect today and we’re out here to say that we don’t agree.”
The group says they began the protest in Marion Square, but were asked by police to move to the opposite street corner in front of Walgreens following a noise complaint. Organizers say the protest was a spontaneous act, but have more assemblies in the works.
“Ordinances like these are turning our society to where we can punish a symptom of an issue, in this case the impoverished people of Charleston,” said John White, who helped coordinate the protest. “It sucks that there is poverty, but making it so that nobody can see it, putting it behind closed doors, is not going to fix that.”
So, White and his transcendentalist pals raise a good question: What does Charleston’s poor population look like?
The Brookings Institute’s most recent analysis of American Community Survey data found that approximately 15 percent of residents in the Charleston-North Charleston metro area live below the poverty line. That puts the area’s poor population over 107,000 and slightly above the 2014 average for the nation’s top 100 metro areas. The local poverty rate actually saw a slight drop between 2013-2014, but that decrease was isolated to the suburbs. Over that same period, the poor population in urban communities grew by more than 11 percent — well above the national average which showed a slight drop.
Charleston County is home to about 8 percent of the state’s homeless population, according to the last estimate by the S.C. Coalition for the Homeless. Working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the organization conducts an annual Point-in-Time Count of the state’s homeless. Of the 5,040 adults and children identified in South Carolina without a home in January 2014, 425 live in Charleston County, which ranks fourth in the state for highest homeless population.
John hopes to keep his old post on East Bay Street, but he says the panhandling ordinance will likely cause a shift in where the city’s poor choose to ask for money. His main concern is that it will push the area’s homeless toward popular downtown destinations with heavier foot traffic, leading to conflict.
“More people are going to be moving downtown and asking for money and a drunk person’s going to come out of a bar wanting to fight a homeless person and a homeless guy’s going to get hurt,” he says. “It’s going to cause a lot of friction actually. As long as we were right here out of the way, people didn’t have to pay too much attention to us, but you get the people downtown and the alcohol mixing, you’re going to have problems.”[image-3]
According to a report released by the National Coalition for the Homeless, there were 109 acts of violence against homeless individuals in 2013 based solely on their housing status. That total marks an almost 24 percent increase over the previous year and includes 47 acts of assault with a deadly weapon and 22 beatings. Of these 109 victims, 18 were killed.
In 2013, state Rep. Wendell Gilliard introduced five bills looking to tackle South Carolina’s homeless problem. They included plans to establish a committee to study the state’s homeless issues and a law to loosen health regulation prohibiting restaurants from donating leftover food to shelters. Also among those bills was legislation to classify attacks on the homeless as hate crimes. While South Carolina currently lacks any hate crime legislation of its own, at least seven other states qualify assaults against the homeless as hate crimes.
Gilliard says he has mixed feelings regarding the city’s new ordinance against panhandling. While he understands the need to maintain public safety on roadways, Gilliard believes a more comprehensive effort should be made to directly address the state’s homeless problem.
“You can come up with an ordinance day in and day out to stop people from peddling in the street, but you’re treating the symptom, not creating a cure,” he says. “Far too many times in our city and our state, we want to turn our heads to a problem that’s growing, growing like a cancer. We can’t be silent to this problem.”
Gilliard intends to stay committed to addressing homeless issues and plans to hold a two-day seminar with state leaders to discuss what strategies can be adopted by South Carolina. Until then, John and the rest of Charleston’s homeless population will just do their best to adapt to the city’s new rules.
“They’re not going to get rid of the homeless. They’re just going to make us move around. They want to complain, but they don’t want to give you a way out,” John says. “I’m still going to be out here. Don’t forget me. I’ve met some of the most wonderful people coming over that bridge, and I’m thankful for everything I’ve been given.”