Nearly two dozen attendees at this past weekend’s monthly Democratic Party breakfast received a big helping of civic affairs from Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones.

After getting through the first few slides of a presentation at CitySpace on the Downtown Mall on Saturday, Jones found himself facing numerous raised hands. Deviating from his prepared state of the city update, Jones fielded questions about the homeless, affordable housing, public safety and panhandling on the city’s pedestrian mall.

“The Downtown Mall is actually in pretty good shape,” Jones said. “Our vacancy rate is 2.8 percent, which is pretty low, way below the national average when it comes to a shopping center or shopping area. But we do have issues with the Downtown Mall. We do have some concerns about behavior downtown. We have some concerns about aggressive panhandling, abusive language and that type of thing.”

Jones said the city’s response to date has included adding more police officers, making plans for a mall ambassador program and considering ordinances that would limit where people can sit or lie on the mall.

He also cited benefits from the city’s investment in The Crossings at Fourth and Preston, a single-resident-occupancy facility. Half of the 60 apartments at The Crossings are for workforce housing, and the rest are for people who were previously homeless.

“That’s had a big impact on moving some of the homeless folks into housing,” Jones said. “That’s been a real positive, and we’ve talked to folks at The Haven [shelter] who have said, ‘Yes, there is no question that we have seen folks who were hanging out downtown, and may have been causing some of the issues and concerns, who now have a place to go and are slowly but surely turning their lives around.’”

City resident Molly O’Brien lives near the Downtown Mall and said she is not concerned about panhandlers and that the area remains “marvelous” to her and her husband.

“I’m on the mall every day … and I don’t find any great problems,” O’Brien said. “If you don’t want to encounter anybody who is homeless or begging, just walk down the center … I have never been confronted or approached.”

City resident Jeanne-Marie Peterson, a mother of a 2-year-old who also works as a nanny, said she has been made uncomfortable by panhandlers even during the daytime.

“I’ve unfortunately had a different experience,” Peterson said. “I’ll be alone with my baby and a man I don’t know approaches me and asks me for money. Things like that just make me uncomfortable.”

Afterwards, in an interview, Peterson said, “I want to provide proper support for the members of our community who are homeless, or who are underemployed and have no other way of getting money than panhandling.”

Peterson said it was important to protect the safety of the people who patronize the Downtown Mall and encourage customers to come.

“I don’t want them to be turned off and businesses to suffer,” she said.

As far as banning panhandling outright, Jones said the solution isn’t simple.

“One of the things we run into is this pesky little thing called the Constitution,” Jones said to laughter. “There are a lot of people who come to us and say, ‘You need to get rid of panhandling.’ Well, we can’t ban panhandling and we wouldn’t try to ban panhandling. It’s a person’s constitutional right to ask another person for money. That’s protected free speech.”

Jones said, however, that people don’t have the right to be “aggressive” when doing so and that is something the city has regulated with its 2010 soliciting ordinance.

The ordinance, which restricts the location of panhandling, has been challenged in court. Earlier this month the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in a case brought by five homeless men. A ruling is expected in the near future.

Charlottesville resident Sherry Kraft called on the city to measure the effectiveness of The Crossings and The Haven.

“I think it’s really important to have a sense of how these things are working,” Kraft said. “It may be working wonderfully, but I think it’s really hard to tell how it’s working and how it’s affecting the downtown area.”

One resident asked if the new homes being built in the city were really adding to the affordable housing inventory. She said the sales prices of homes seem high.

Jones said one’s opinion of price varies with your perspective, but that the city’s investment in affordable housing initiatives had recently been tallied.

“Over the last 10 years, over $24 million [has been spent] on affordable housing in our community,” Jones said. “That’s a mixture of actual homes being built … but also rent relief and real estate tax relief.”

Charlottesville invested $1.55 million to buy the property for The Crossings.

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