It's a busy day on Main Street and downtown resident Brad Alsobrook approaches the officer charged with patrolling for aggressive panhandlers.
"I just want to thank you for what you're doing," Alsobrook says. "I've lived here on Main for 10-and-a-half years, and I'm so glad you guys are out here doing this. It's really making a big difference."
Officer Willie Askew nods graciously.
Askew has received positive feedback from tourists, businesses, and downtown workers since the start of the Center City Commission plan to halt aggressive panhandling. The $53,000 three-month pilot project, approved in February, began April 1st despite opposition from the homeless and their support organizations.
Commission public-safety coordinator Larry Bloom says that the guards are looking for aggressive behavior.
"When these guys are doing more than asking for a dollar, when you refuse them and they continue with profanity, touching, harassment — that's aggressive," Bloom says.
Even in the program's first weeks, there already has been a noticeable change.
"They know what we're here for," Askew says. "The panhandlers that gather in groups in alleys and at Court Square usually break apart and scatter when they see us coming."
He's says most panhandlers comply when asked to leave the area, and he has not yet had to resort to forceful tactics.
There are currently nine guards on staff, with two working per shift. The guards carry pepper spray, stun batons, and handcuffs, though they are not able to make arrests.
Bloom says the guards patrol some of the problem areas around the Cook Convention Center and Main Street trolley stops from Exchange to Beale and from Front to Second, but they don't patrol Beale Street.
Al James, president of Performa, the entertainment district's management company, says excluding Beale Street already is creating a problem.
"Whatever they are doing must be working," James says, "because we've seen a lot of new panhandlers on Beale. They are just moving them down from one place to another."
Jonathan Milligan, a longtime Beale Street bar manager, says he's seen a few new panhandlers, especially after dark.
"When the sun goes down, the panhandlers start to outnumber everyone else on Beale, and they are very aggressive," Milligan says. "We're used to it, but it scares tourists because they don't understand it."
In lieu of the Center City Commission project, a private security force will patrol Beale starting next weekend.
During the pilot project, the Center City Commission is keeping security reports, monitoring crime statistics, and conducting surveys, all of which will be given to crime analysts after the initial trial period. The commission only has three months of funding for the project.
"We're not out to knock heads," Bloom says. "We want to change behavior."
To report aggressive panhandling, call 281-9146.