HARRISONBURG — City Council was approached at Tuesday’s meeting during public comment by a number of businesses regarding continuous frustrations with a group of people that has allegedly been panhandling and causing disturbances to the downtown community.
Although Mayor Deanna Reed, the Harrisonburg Police Department and other city staff met with businesses and nonprofit organizations two weeks ago to discuss solutions for the ongoing homeless and panhandling issues downtown, the community is still voicing concern and wanting more police enforcement.
“I think it’s my opinion and the opinion of many downtown community members that what we are dealing with is an organized group of people,” Pale Fire Brewing owner Tim Brady said Tuesday. “They might panhandle at times and that might be how they support themselves, but the issue is not the panhandling — the issue is the crime that’s going along with them.”
Lois Jones, the library director at the Massanutten Regional Library, said that the library has no issue with the homeless, but instead with a small group of people that hangs outside around the library.
“They were involved in Denton Park and have since then moved on to another location,” Jones said in an interview Wednesday, adding that they have been reckless inside and outside the library.
She said the group has made lewd comments to patrons walking inside and outside the building.
“Probably the worst thing we’ve had this year is ... people relieving themselves all over the library property and inside the library,” she said. “We’ve had feces on the walls in the men’s rooms and tracked out into the library.”
Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English spoke before council and the public Tuesday saying there is statistically nothing that should make anyone feel unsafe about the downtown.
“You have to be careful when you ask for resources downtown because when people ask for extra patrol, residents and patrons who come downtown see more law enforcement and ask themselves if it’s safe to be there,” English said.
“When we first had this issue, some of the business owners wanted something done and how we handle it is through enforcement,” he said, adding that law enforcement can’t do anything other than a citation. “So our hands are kind of tied.”
English said he has directed his staff to not target individuals, but instead to target behavior.
Jones said since the meeting two weeks ago, she had seen an overall improvement until Tuesday.
Reed said she travels every morning downtown to see who is panhandling and she hasn’t seen that particular group.
“I’ve seen two new people, but not that group,” she said, adding that police have been enforcing the area more.
English added that he goes through the downtown every morning before work to see who is panhandling.
Councilman Chris Jones said people are “taking advantage of the kindness of our community in a very, I would say, calculated way — to the negative.”
“There’s an affordable housing issue and people are lumping all things homeless, all things ALICE, all things panhandling, all things standing in the median under affordable housing,” Jones said. “Some of them are symptoms of affordable housing, but they’re not a direct cause of affordable housing.”
He said all communities dealing with affordable housing don’t have criminal activity or people being intimidated or threatened or feeling insecure.
“People are taking advantage of residents and visitors and so we need to starve that out,” he said. “You can’t have people constantly passing out money on the street and then you expect people to not stand on the street. If you stop doing it, then people won’t stand there.”
Jones said he regrets not passing an ordinance on pedestrians occupying certain medians, which was previously presented to council.
The ordinance proposal, which was tabled in March, included seven intersections in the city that have had more than five accidents a year and have an increased number of pedestrians occupying the medians.
The purpose of the ordinance was to reduce distracted drivers, interruption to the flow of traffic and the risk of pedestrian-vehicle collisions, according to city documents.
The intersections that would fall under the ordinance include:
• South Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way
• East Market Street and Carlton Street
• East Market Street and Linda Lane/Burgess Road
• South High Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way
• South Main Street and Stone Spring Road
• South Main Street and Pleasant Valley Road
• West Market Street and High Street
Councilman George Hirschmann agreed with Jones’ regret on not passing the ordinance, while adding that he is seeing advertisements all over the place for jobs.
“The city is trying to hire all over the place, and these people don’t want to work,” he said. “They go to work when they sit on the corner with their sign. That’s their job, and I think there’s a difference between homeless and panhandling.”
He said the homeless are going to get food for families and a place to stay, while there are panhandlers who go to their corners with their sign then go home at the end of the day.
“You can’t go out there with clubs and get rid of them, but there’s something that has to be done to address the problem,” he said.
Reed said there is a group that is “looking into creating a fund that will, instead of giving your money to the panhandlers, give it to the fund.”
In May, council voted to spend half a million dollars in community contributions in the 2019-20 fiscal year budget.
“In two weeks, I’m going to lobby that we spend an additional $230,000 to fund community organizations,” Jones said. “But here’s the kicker — you’ve got to starve it out.”