The cover story of the current C-Ville Weekly asks what’s behind the rash of beggars on the Downtown Mall? There’s the obvious point that we’re in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, which would explain the (apparent) increase in numbers, but what’s up with the new faces, displaying signs and soliciting cash? It’s not clear that there are more beggars, but there are some new faces, employing new tactics, eschewing the passivity common among the chronically homeless who beg downtown. As of 2007, the local homeless population was more likely to be local than the population at large, which busted the “Charlottesville is a homeless mecca myth. This January’s survey showed an 18% increase (with 274 homeless Charlottesvillians in total). Now we’ve got The Haven, the day shelter on Market Street, just a block off the Downtown Mall, and it’s certainly possible that facility has something to do with this. The folks who run it argue that they’re in the habit of upbraiding people for panhandling and, more important, helping people get employed (and employable) so that they’re not homeless.
I visited Reno a couple of years ago, and they had a clever solution to the problem of the hordes of pushy panhandlers wandering around downtown. Near the busiest intersections, in front of the garish casinos, large, eye-catching collection boxes were set up, with signs saying that the best way to help the homeless is to donate to the organizations to assist them, not to give money to individuals. That had the effect of pushing panhandlers away from that block. That may be overkill for Charlottesville, but it could help.