Helping people in distress is a natural instinct for many of us. In Fayetteville, a recent increase in people begging for our money hasn’t gone unnoticed. But by giving money to a panhandler, you may be enabling them not helping them
KNWA met panhandler Artie Swackhammer at the intersection of I-49 and MLK Blvd. in Fayetteville.
“It just came to where we ran out of funds and all,” he told us.
For the past month, panhandling has become a routine for Swackhammer who is a Northwest Arkansas native.
“We had a house fire back in February and just trying to make it until my girlfriend gets her first check and I get my disability check that way we can get back on our feet, get an apartment,” says Swackhammer.
The couple received assistance from a local non-profit but Swackhammer says that didn’t last long. So, he started holding a cardboard sign around Fayetteville.
“At first I didn’t really want to do it because I know we’ve always done it on our own,” says Swackhammer.
It proved lucrative. Three hours each day gets him about $60 which is enough for a one night stay at a hotel. In Fayetteville, asking for your money is completely legal.
“We had to amend our panhandling ordinance. Actually, it’s pretty much gone away with,” says Sergeant Craig Stout with the Fayetteville Police Department –
Due to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, panhandling is now considered free speech. In November of last year, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas ruled “Arkansas’ anti-begging law infringes on the freedom of speech guaranteed under the first amendment to the federal constitution.”
Back in December, Fayetteville City Council updated its code to no longer prohibit panhandling. With word of the new laws spreading, an influx of panhandlers came naturally.
To keep everyone safe, the city did pass an ordinance that prevents people from standing on private property and they must be at least 100 feet away from a roadway, a shoulder, or interstate off-ramp.
“We haven’t had a lot of disturbances. We have had a few little scraps where people maybe arguing over turf over who go to the corner first, but we haven’t had any really violent instances that I’m aware of,” says Sergeant Stout.
As long as the rules are followed, anyone can panhandle in Fayetteville- no matter their agenda.
“There’s no rule that says you can only panhandle if you’re homeless, right?,” says Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas Sociology Professor
According to Dr. Fitzpatrick, only a fraction of Northwest Arkansas panhandlers are homeless. Some just want money for gas, car repairs, or even to cover medical expenses.
“If you’re empowered to give money and not have it, either in your head or practically with strings attached, that’s great,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick.
“If you want to help the homeless, we recommend giving to one of the centers that helps the homeless whether it’s 7 Hills, Salvation Army, one of the local churches,” says Sergeant Stout.
If you want to give to panhandlers, Swackhammer welcomes you to start a conversation.
“Most of the ones that stop to give the money, they’ll sit there and talk to you for a minute to find out. Cause then they know the situation and know what’s going on and they’re more apt to help,” says Swackhmmer.
Whether you agree or disagree with panhandling, it’s here to stay for the time being- in the land of free speech.
Other NWA cities have also established ordinances to control panhandling. Here’s the breakdown:
In Springdale, aggressive panhandling is prohibited and panhandlers must stand 100 feet away from a roadway.
In Rogers, panhandling is not allowed and people must have a permit to solicit money or they could be cited.
As for Bentonville, the only requirement is for panhandlers to not obstruct traffic.