Moderated by Rick Badie
Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond wants to sweep the streets clean of aggressive panhandlers, though not necessarily the homeless. He has proposed an ordinance that calls for repeat offenders to serve a mandatory six-month incarceration after the third arrest. But homeless advocate Anita Beaty, who calls the law unnecessary and discriminatory, suggests the city should provide adequate services for the poor, not run them off.
By Michael Julian Bond
Just as Vine City, Inman Park, Polar Rock, Loring Heights and West End are communities that make up the diverse fabric of our great city, so does downtown. And just like all communities around Atlanta, downtown is also dealing with a variety of concerns.
I receive requests on a daily basis from citizens asking me to address myriad issues. Whether it is an abandoned and vacant property being used as a crack house, a broken sidewalk, a pothole or a high water bill, I am expected to respond, and I do.
Yet when I receive calls about aggressive panhandling and respond to the very real concerns being experienced by residents and small business owners who contact me about this issue, there is an immediate response from certain stakeholders who express shock and dismay that I am trying to address the problem.
Some advocates for the homeless believe that any attempt to curb aggressive panhandling criminalizes all homeless people. But not all aggressive panhandlers are homeless, and not all homeless are aggressive panhandlers. It’s a distinction illustrated every day.
Last Sunday as I was leaving City Hall, I saw a young mother with three small children crossing the street in front of me. They entered the back door of Trinity United Methodist Church, a longtime provider of services for the homeless. Sadly, this scene repeats itself hundreds of times a day in Atlanta. With a 100 percent voting record in support of homeless issues, I can say that this mother and her children — and the many who share their plight — are not the subject of the proposed legislation.
This initiative is not about homelessness, it is about harassment.
There are other scenes that play out every day in Atlanta. They may involve a college student walking to her class, or a waitress leaving her job to catch a MARTA train, or a couple walking their dog in a city park. What they have in common is that each was followed for several blocks, verbally attacked or physically intimidated by a person who claimed to be homeless and asked for money.
I know this because in each case the accosted person contacted my office and expressed fear, anger and frustration with the city’s refusal to address this problem.
Since last July, Atlanta police officers have made 279 aggressive panhandling arrests. Seventy-eight people were responsible for over 200 of these arrests — which mean some 75 percent of aggressive panhandling violations are due to less than 80 individuals. And if you talk to our public safety officials — be they police, solicitors, public defenders, judges or corrections officers — they will concur that it is the same small group of individuals commit the vast number of aggressive panhandling offenses.
Atlanta’s homeless deserve access to every available resource that we as a society can provide. The community’s voices and pleas must be heard and addressed. And we must hold accountable those few individuals whose behavior is having such a profound and negative impact on the quality of life of our downtown residents.
Until we are willing to address and acknowledge these realities, it will be impossible to make sound and just public policy on this issue. It is my intention to start the conversation and see it through to its end, ensuring that all communities and constituencies are at the table, that their concerns are heard and all are treated fairly.
A public safety committee work session to discuss Bond’s proposed panhandling ordinance will be held at 10 a.m. Aug. 23 in committee room No. 2 at City Hall, 55 Trinity Ave., SW. The session will be broadcast live on Channel 26.
Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, chair of the public safety-legal administration committee.
By Anita Beaty
Yogi Berra said it best: “This is déjà vu all over again.”
We have all been here before, many times. Central Atlanta Progress and the mayor and city council decide for us, year after year, that homelessness is a public safety issue, not a result of exclusionary public policy and discriminatory legislation.
So they focus on criminalizing homeless people by passing more thoughtless, even unconstitutional legislation in order to avoid addressing the housing and social issues.
If homeless individuals are the problem, and if we define their public behavior as pathological at best or criminal at worst, then we can incarcerate them and avoid living next door to them or having to acknowledge them. We can frighten each other into believing that they might mean us harm instead of educating each other that relationships lead to communities that can provide for all of us.
We can be persuaded that the disoriented man on the street who approaches us means us harm. Fear blocks our own responses to his circumstance and perhaps to his request. No one wants to be verbally threatened or physically aggressed walking down the street, parking a car, waiting in a line or at a stoplight. But we already have laws prohibiting threatening words and aggressive behavior.
Repeatedly using public humiliation, harassment, and the threat of incarceration as deterrents to poverty and homelessness is insanity. In recovery circles, folks learn that repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting different results is called “crazy.”
Responding to a housing and social service crisis by criminalizing the very people we are failing, even refusing, to serve also creates outcomes that prevent those same people from getting jobs they may want and housing they might even afford. Categorizing those individuals as service-resistant or chronically homeless puts the blame on them for our exclusion.
In the years leading up to the 1996 Olympics, local corporate and political developers gave us “quality of life” laws, ordinances criminalizing behavior that in some cases is absolutely necessary for people who live without housing: “urban camping,” which amounted to sleeping in public spaces; “remaining” in a parking lot without a car; public urination, though there are no accessible public toilets.
By 2005, city officials were persuaded to approve what was called a “commercial solicitation” ordinance in exchange for the Georgia Aquarium. That deal required the city to make the area safe for the newest tourist attraction by criminalizing people who asked for any kind of help in certain areas we call the “tourist triangle.”
Not even a year passed before the very creators and proponents of the ordinance blamed their own policy for failing to solve their problems. By 2010, complaints about the “social dysfunction of the streets” again prompted Central Atlanta Progress to focus on drafting still another anti-panhandling ordinance, and to complain that these ordinances were obviously not working to eliminate street homelessness; nor had the expensive Gateway Center ended homelessness.
Still, there was no acknowledgement of causes: that maybe the demolition of 3,200 units of Atlanta’s public housing in a city where the unmet housing need already exceeded a minimum of nearly 100,000 units could increase homelessness.
So here we go again, faced with yet another anti-panhandling proposal.
We are told this ordinance addresses only “aggressive” panhandling. Look at the definitions of “aggressive” panhandling. Any behavior that might be construed by a reasonable person as threatening, that might cause someone to be afraid, can be called “aggressive.”
A mandatory sentence of six months for poorly defined behavior in a city that refuses to address or even acknowledge its housing and social service needs, where housing is destroyed, public transportation systematically removed from “poor” neighborhoods and developers reign is deeply destructive.
Anita Beaty, executive director of Metro Atlanta Task Force the Homeless.