Panhandling: A real issue?

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.

49 comments Add your comment

Jennifer

August 9th, 2012
6:23 pm

Could you have found a LESS credible advocate than Anita Beaty?

Bernie

August 9th, 2012
3:55 pm

Sounds as though Mr.Bond is preparing and angling to replace Brother REED in the next election.

If one evaluates the difference between the panhandlers and Mr.Bond you will find a lot of commonality. The panhandling and pandering Mr.Bond does is not done on the streets, but in the halls and meeting rooms of Atlanta City Hall. Like as in the case of the panhandlers, Mr.Bond has been on the city’s payroll for years in a long line of LEGACY AFRICAN AMERICAN LEADERS who are awaiting “MY TURN” and will say thing to the residents of North Atlanta to gain favor and support in his run for office.

To take such a archaic position demonstrates he lacks the wisdom and vision this City needs to move forward. Being the Son of one this nations most revered leaders in the Civil Rights Movement he should know better. But as with all spoiled children, they only think of themselves!

K-Ster

August 9th, 2012
3:50 pm

Rider Inman, I wish I knew their secret! :-)

Marlboro Man

August 9th, 2012
3:47 pm

Calling folks on the no call list and getting away with it because they are charities or politicians go hand in hand with pan handlers. No real difference. They get the same response.

skipper

August 9th, 2012
3:47 pm

Hey bleedin’ hearts…..there is a difference between a legitimate homeless person and an aggresive a$$hole……I try to be generous in life but QUIT comparing these stinkin’ SOB’s on Atlanta’s streets with decent people………there is a d@mn difference!

Rider Inman

August 9th, 2012
3:42 pm

K-Ster, I agree. The DC needy are a thousand times better than the ones running around MARTA here. I’ve been on the Metro quite a bit up there and I actually enjoy those that provide music or some sort of entertainment at the stations or in the tunnels. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I’ve ever been approached for $ up there. What are they doing up there that makes their tourist areas so free from the agressive vagrants?

K-Ster

August 9th, 2012
3:06 pm

In DC, they just sit there in the METRO entrance with a sign. You never hear from them or interact with them other than their muted ‘Thank You’ if you tip. One time a guy was in an entrance providing musical entertainment (homeless, I assume). The most beautiful music/voice. I say all this because I’ve seen beggars try to earn their free handouts through politeness, entertainment, and by being a helping hand.

When I worked off of Mitchell near 5-Points, I would watch a homeless woman weed the back alley out of boredom. She’d sweep the parking area with a branch out of boredom. She’d also help the building maintenance guy take trash bags to the dumpster…Out of boredom. She worked for her keep. I’d gladly give spare change to needy folks like her. Hell, my dad gave a bunch of change to a guy who sang me happy birthday in the parking deck of the Varsity back in 1993 when I was a kid celebrating my birthday. You make my day interesting or give me a lasting memory, then sure! I’ll give you the $0.73 I have in my cup holder.

Motocross Survivor

August 9th, 2012
3:05 pm

I have no sympathy for the dirt dobbers. Most are born bums who want no other life than the one they live. I felt sorry for a bum sitting in Crystal a couple of years back and gave him several hamburgers. Did he eat them? NO. He immediately left with them to trade for booze I have no doubt. To hell with them.

Whatizit

August 9th, 2012
3:02 pm

Ever notice how there are never any “hungry” people on the sidewalks approaching Turner Field when the Braves are not playing at home and there are no gullible baseball fans coming in from the suburbs?