New Ideas for Dealing with Homeless on Downtown Mall

November 15, 2012

It's not a new problem, but it's a big problem. Business owners on the downtown mall say panhandling is out of control.

"We have people that panhandle as an occupation and that's an issue," said Joan Fenton, owner of J. Fenton Gifts on the downtown mall.

Charlottesville City Council is in the process of implementing some new programs to help deal with the homeless population on the downtown mall. Four community representatives will be in place for the holiday shopping season and then again in the warmer spring and summer months to greet visitors to the downtown mall. They will also serve as "additional sets of eyes and ears for police," according to council members. The pilot program will cost the city $80,000.

Another $50,000 to $60,000 is being proposed for a new position, "Street Outreach Coordinator". "It would be somebody who would work with the ambassadors and police to interact with some of the folks who we see on the downtown mall and parks who may need to know more about the services available to help them find housing or some other services that would help them find a job," said Charlottesville City Council member Dede Smith.

But some business owners say a bigger police presence should be the priority. Joan Fenton has owned J. Fenton Gifts on the downtown mall for 12 years and says the police kiosks have been the most helpful in preventing problems.

"There are some people dealing drugs and the increased police presence has helped that tremendously but it needs to be vigilant," Fenton said. "Because as soon as they go away problems arise again."

City council is also considering new ordinances to further regulate the panhandling, but Smith said protecting civil rights is a priority to council members. "It's critical to city council that we be cognizant that we wall appreciate and absolutely expect our civil rights to be preserved and we need that to be true for everybody," Smith said.

But business owners are more concerned with making sure people continue to visit the downtown mall. "This is the social hub and economic hub of the city," said Fenton. "It's exciting, it's vibrant, it's fabulous and the city has to protect it."

The issue is on city council's agenda for the next meeting scheduled for November 19.

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