Just before Thanksgiving, I was walking down Fayetteville Street at lunchtime when I heard a woman’s voice carrying down the sidewalk, belting out church music from a block away.
I spotted her on a bench outside PNC Bank: swaddled in a sweatsuit and stocking cap, plastic bags full of stuff. Homeless, I thought – talking out loud to God and anybody else within a tenth of a mile.
“Jesus walk with me,” she sang, over and over. “Hold my hand, Lord. Hold my hand ...”
I stopped to listen, having a weakness for this sort of thing, and I watched her swaying on the bench for about 20 minutes before police officers started to arrive.
One officer waited on the corner, outside the bank. Then two more came and they approached my downtown singer. I couldn’t hear much of their conversation, but it was clear they weren’t asking to hear “Rock of Ages” next. One officer asked if the woman had her ID badge, and she grew very angry, shouting about her civil rights.
“I ain’t bothering nobody!” she yelled down the street. An officer patted her down, then an ambulance arrived and took the singer away.
Her name is Mavis Valerie Bryant, and she’s 50. She lives at the Helen Wright Center, a women’s shelter on Cabarrus Street. I know this because I called Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue, who told me that she had been charged with begging within 100 feet of an ATM or open bank.
He enclosed a 911 call with the female caller’s voice disguised, and her name redacted: “There’s a woman in front of the PNC building, um, begging for money and asking for food,” the caller said. “We were just wondering if someone could come by and get her.”
The caller explained that the woman had drawn other complaints in recent weeks. A few things about the call puzzled me. The caller said the woman had been singing for a while now and only recently started begging. She also said that police told her about harassment at the ATM, not that she witnessed it herself.
“You can’t miss her,” she told the 911 dispatcher. “She’s the only one screaming at the top of her lungs, singing.”
The city prohibits begging without a permit, which must be obtained at least 48 hours before one wishes to solicit money. Panhandlers cannot beg at night, 20 feet from a bus stop, 100 feet from a bank, 20 feet from any open commercial establishment or 3 feet from any potential giver. Try that sometime without a tape measure.
I’m on record opposing these sorts of regulations, which I consider a thinly disguised plot to keep poor folks out of sight and let the charitable souls in less desirable neighborhoods take care of them. I know a lot of good people disagree with me.
I live and work downtown, and I get hit up for money almost every day. I turn panhandlers down, unless they ask for food, and they leave to ask somebody else for money. I’m sure a lot of you out there have horror stories, which you’re now angrily sending to my inbox, but I just don’t believe harassment and public nuisances are the norm.
Maybe I’m numb to it. There’s a guy who hangs out in our parking garage, talking to himself. For a while, a guy from the shelter was cutting hair down there.
In Bryant’s case, I didn’t see her speak to anybody. I didn’t see anybody walking past even make eye contact. If she pestered someone on Fayetteville Street, I couldn’t find a victim.
I asked Jason Green, a hot dog vendor across the street who has been hearing her for weeks.
“Doesn’t bother anybody,” he said. “Just singing. She’s got a beautiful voice.”
I asked Rachel Haskins, who works at two restaurants within sight of Bryant’s bench.
“I’ve never seen her bother a soul,” she said of Bryant, whose case hasn’t gone court. “I ask her if she needs anything when I see her out on a particularly cold or windy day. She is very sweet and doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with her mentally. She tells me she is just down on her luck, and she knows God will provide for her somehow. She is the most hopeful homeless person I’ve ever met.”
I hope the 911 caller felt the same sense of peace when they led away Bryant. That’s sarcasm, just to be clear. I don’t feel that way at all. To Bryant’s bench go we all, but for the grace of God. Hold our hands, Lord.