10 News Investigates: Panhandling in Roanoke and how city leaders are addressing it

‘This is not what I want to be doing at all,’ said one person panhandling on Orange Ave.

According to data, the number of homeless people in Roanoke has gone down, but another population is on the rise

ROANOKE, Va. – Homelessness in the Roanoke Valley continues to trend down according to the most recent Point-in-Time Report.

According to the 2022 Point-in-Time Report, there are 216 people experiencing homelessness in the Roanoke region, which is a 13% decrease from last year.

However, the number of people who are considered unsheltered has tripled.

“So last January we counted 12 that were unsheltered and this year we counted 38. So we did see an increase in the number of folks staying outside,” said Matt Crookshank with Roanoke’s Homeless Assistance Team.

Aaron Massie is one of those people experiencing homelessness in Roanoke.

Six months ago, Aaron lost his car, home, and small business, which left him to make an unthinkable decision.

“It was a pretty hard decision to make, but I needed money to survive,” Aaron said.

Aaron now spends his time on the corner of Orange Avenue and Williamson Road panhandling – or what he and others call it, flying the sign.

“It’s really embarrassing, I hate doing this,” said Aaron.

Aaron spends his money from panhandling or other odd jobs to pay for a hotel room at the Days Inn on Orange Avenue, where he and his dad sleep most nights.

But if Aaron doesn’t make enough money panhandling, they are forced to sleep outside.

“This is not what I want to be doing at all,” said Aaron.

When 10 News spoke with Aaron, we asked him why he chooses not to stay in a shelter.

“I like to keep to myself. I really don’t like to hang out with a bunch of people,” Aaron said.

Other reasons the number of unsheltered people has trended up are mental health concerns and substance abuse, according to Roanoke’s Homeless Assistance Team.

Another challenge with people panhandling or sleeping outside is the number of personal items, trash, and drug paraphernalia that collects in areas.

Aaron showed 10 News the hill off of Orange Avenue covered in trash.

According to records, the area is city property.

“It’s a concern. We are bothered by it. But we have to do things within the law,” said Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea.

As for what can be done about the homeless camp and panhandling at that intersection, Roanoke’s City Manager Bob Cowell declined to comment when 10 News approached him after a council meeting.

10 News previously spoke with Cowell in April about homelessness and City Code 20-69, which prohibits walking up and down the median.

“Most folks assume that panhandling, most people assume that’s illegal but that’s not the case,” said Cowell in an interview from April 2022. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the youth sports group, the local church, or a homeless individual, they are all in violation of that ordinance as they walk up and down those medians.”

So why do we still see people in violation of this code, even with signs posed in the medians?

“That enforcement comes from the police, and they’re pretty busy so it’s not going to be a high profile case that they are going to go out and respond to,” said Cowell during that same interview in April. “At some point, we are, we have, and will continue to enforce that but it is still probably going to be a lot less likely than folks might want it to be because of the other issues that we have to confront with our law enforcement folks.”

10 News asked Aaron his thoughts about panhandling in front of signs that clearly state he can’t be walking where he is.

“I need money to survive so you’ve gotta do what you gotta do,” Aaron told us.

Roanoke City’s mayor maintains that addressing homelessness at Orange Avenue and beyond is a top priority.

“Working with homelessness is difficult as it is. But we’ve got to do everything we can to clean it up and that Is on the list of ‘to-dos’ for us as a city,” said Mayor Lea.

The city’s Homeless Assistance Team told 10 News they are focusing on people like Aaron and others who sleep along Orange Avenue and other homeless camps.

Find 10 News’ previous articles on homelessness in Roanoke below:

About the Author:

Sydney joined the WSLS 10 News team in June 2021.