Panhandling pressure downtown

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Failure has marked the city of Atlanta’s attempts to curb panhandling, particularly aggressive begging from repeat offenders. The latest proposal calls for stiffer penalties such as mandated jail time for a third conviction. Homeless activists say the measures criminalize poverty; proponents add that tougher laws are aimed at a small group of incorrigible mendicants. Below, a business leader writes how panhandling affects commercial life and civic pride, while an activist says laws don’t get at the root of the problem.

Commenting is open below Joe Beasley’s column.

By William “Chick” Ciccaglione

Underground Atlanta is a major attraction, welcoming millions of tourists, convention goers, residents and office workers annually. The property sits on 12 acres and spans six blocks in the heart of downtown Atlanta and was acquired by O’Leary Partners, Inc. in 1999.

The panhandling “issue” existed then and still exists today, with more frequency and aggression.

Over time, aggressive panhandling has become a citywide issue, but it does seem as though the Five Points area is most plagued by the act.

The MARTA station is the nucleus of our transit system, flanked by one of the city’s most historic landmarks, city, state, county and federal offices, Georgia State University and residential buildings.

This area including Underground Atlanta is weighed down by things like quality-of-life issues, loitering, irresponsible property owners, unregulated vending and aggressive panhandling.

A number of laws, policies and procedures, task forces and awareness campaigns have been implemented over the years. Unfortunately, none have resulted in long-term effectiveness and, as a result, panhandling has become increasingly worse.

Responsible property owners are frustrated. Residents are frustrated. Law enforcement is frustrated.

At present there is no glue holding up the current panhandling ordinance in court, making it extremely hard to enforce any repercussions for participating in aggressive panhandling.

Underground Atlanta has its own policies and procedures in place that we enforce internally, but battling the issue is extremely challenging and creates additional expenses for the property: security, housekeeping and building maintenance.

Multiple real estate deals have fallen through based on these experiences and, depending on the economics of each deal, have resulted in loss of potential income from $10,000 to $1 million, which means less taxes collected and jobs created for the city, state and county.

We have issued approximately 350 criminal trespasses year-to-date and 50 to 60 percent of those were issued to aggressive panhandlers. That’s approximately one per day, and those are panhandlers who would not leave the property peacefully, many of whom are repeat offenders.

Earlier this year a group of Underground Atlanta business owners and a few allies in the district approached Mayor Kasim Reed on the subject.

In response, Mayor Reed spent an afternoon observing. As a result, a new task force was formed, spearheaded by Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), called Operation Best Foot Forward.

The group includes us at Underground Atlanta, a number of properties and business owners including Fairfield Inn & Suites, CAP staff members, the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association, Atlanta Police Department, GSU police, MARTA police, the mayor’s office, as well as other invested stakeholders.

This task force is addressing a number of things: panhandling, quality-of-life issues, aesthetics and beautification, code enforcement and unified law enforcement.

We are pleased and optimistic the public safety committee chaired by Councilman Michael Bond, Mayor Reed and the City Council are taking a serious look at strengthening panhandling legislation and that this is a priority for more than those of us living through it daily.

We know things will not change overnight, but we are encouraged by the recent interest taken in this issue and glad to be heard that we need help.

The Five Points MARTA Station is the busiest in the system with 800,000 people passing through per month.

Therefore this entire area should be beautiful, clean, vibrant; a destination for our residents and visitors. An area that we are proud of.

Something has to be done.

William “Chick” Ciccaglione is general manager of Underground Atlanta.

By Joe Beasley

Panhandlers give downtown Atlanta a “black eye,” critics say.

They’re too pushy.

They frighten people when they beg.

They’re a threat to the city’s multibillion dollar convention and tourism industry because the very sight of beggars, the majority of whom are African-American men, appear to be threatening.

Panhandlers must be stopped to protect public safety, critics argue, even if it means locking them up in overcrowded jails for what some perceive as criminal behavior.

Atlanta has a long history of trying to criminalize homelessness that dates back to the early ’70s. Georgia State University professor Charles G. Steffen documents it in a study he published recently in the Journal of Social History called “The Corporate Campaign against Homelessness: Class Power and Urban Governance in Neoliberal Atlanta, 1973-1988.”

The most recent proposal, introduced by City Councilman Michael J. Bond, to jail aggressive panhandlers for a minimum of six months after a third conviction, is based on convoluted logic.

Criminalizing panhandling is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer.

It doesn’t heal the fact that we have a lot of desperate, needy people in Atlanta, particularly African-American men who have never really had a place in this country.

As descendants of slaves and sharecroppers, black men have been pushed off the land and into urban areas where they have never had a home.

But the city too busy to hate just doesn’t get it.

The formal leaders – Mayor Kasim Reed and Bond – and the informal, behind-the-scenes power brokers such as Central Atlanta Progress, the chamber of commerce, Coca-Cola and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, refuse to deal with the root causes of poverty and panhandling.

People are being marginalized in our society.

There are no jobs.

Social services are scarce and the needy continue to be locked out.

The systemic problem is racism and an unequal justice system where black males make up more than 50 percent of the jail and prison populations.

When they get out, they have a scarlet letter on their foreheads that makes them less likely to succeed in a capitalistic society.

Advocates for Bond’s proposal say they are targeting the “professional” beggar who is aggressive and who really wants the money for drugs or alcohol.

I’ve heard businessmen claim there are only about 60 who meet that criteria. If that’s the case, and Atlanta police know who they are, why not deal with them directly instead of adopting an ordinance that penalizes everyone?

I would be more than willing to work on such a project.

There are about 50,000 vacant homes and buildings in Atlanta.

The $78 a day it takes to keep a person in jail could be used to provide social services and housing for the homeless.

City leaders need to stop this habit of blaming the homeless, the real victims in this debate.

If something is damaged, you fix it.

We have a lot of damaged people in society who need to be repaired.

As long as we are in denial about that, the problem will not go away.

Joe Beasley is is vice chair of the Task Force for the Homeless, and Human Services director for Antioch Baptist Church North.


43 comments Add your comment

Lame Blame Game

September 7th, 2012
9:38 pm

Bernie, please get some perspective. Many of the comments here are thoughtful and articulate, yet your response is grade school level mockery. If you can’t participate in an adult discussion then leave and let the adults weigh in. The 1970’s was four decades ago! I doubt we have panhandlers who can blame events of 40 years ago for their present circumstances. Life is a compilation of one’s decisions – good and bad – over several years. You are what you eat, and you get out of life what you put into it. Panhandlers set their own hours, they don’t have a boss and they don’t have peer performance reviews. It beats working! There are plenty of white panhandlers out there too, so you can drop the racial posturing. This is a nuisance at the least and a safety concern at the worst. We are being burdened with every drunk and drug addict from every small town in a 250 mile radius of Atlanta; we need to put them right back on the bus and have the local cops contact their family to claim them. Nobody hatched from an egg, so the families need to take care of their own.

Bernie

September 7th, 2012
8:07 pm

Today I sought some inquires from Older African Americans around Atlanta about this issue. OH BOY! The stories i was told about this City’s rich history and panhandling in downtown Atlanta. At one time it was a thriving and successful business right in five points. With a participation and patronage of many citizens of
Atlanta, BLACK & White, Affluent & Poor.

Many were quite ingenious in their operation and profits generated. A great Tribute to the American spirit of Entrepreneurship. Something that is so Beloved by today’s Republican Party. Make & get profits at the expense of ALL of the others.

Retired Vet

September 7th, 2012
7:18 pm

Do you think there enough jail cells to just lock these people up? Fulton county jail already ships prisoners to far reaches of the state due to overcrowding. In case you didn’t know, if the arresting officer does not show up for the arraignment all charges are dropped. Let’s say you are a cop on the beat in downtown. You get off at 12, 1AM. How anxious are you going to be to show up and present your case against a bum the following morning? People who feed pigeons encourage pigeons to keep showing up. In other words, beggars in downtown Atlanta know it is a lucrative trade. I am keenly aware that there is a plethora of help organizations in downtown Atlanta providing food, clothing etc. When have you heard of anyone starving to death on Atlanta streets? Don’t feed the pigeons, and do not feel guilty when you do not. In other words, when you allow them to tug at your heart strings and you reach for your wallet you are adding to the problem. Not meaning to disparrage Hosea’s Feed The Homeless and Hungry, but I often wonder why that organization ask for volunteers when they could encourage the able bodied men they feed on holidays to help prepare, serve and clean up after themselves?

Bernie

September 7th, 2012
7:01 pm

Grob Hahn @ 5:00 pm – Actually enclosed connections were at one time considered by the planners of Marta so that the suburbanites could whisk in & out of Atlanta and gain access to the many concentrated areas without having them exposed to the undesirables of the streets of Atlanta. However at that time it would have cost even more for such a convenience. White Flight of downtown Atlanta after 6pm was already a norm even then. Their presence after that time was stark and noticeable.

Bernie

September 7th, 2012
6:04 pm

Grob Hahn @ 5:00 pm – Either I am missing something or you have a serious reading and comprehension problem.

Grob Hahn

September 7th, 2012
5:00 pm

Trying to blame today’s panhandling problem on slavery is trite and preposterous. Many of the people being hustled for money are professional black people. Unless panhandlers have some mystical way of determining which black people participated in the slave trade centuries ago, there might have to be another way to explain this. Since they are NOT targeting by race when they beg, is this really a racial problem at all? NO, it’s a commercial problem.

Atlanta can’t afford ANY of this kind of crap. We don’t have the extended convention facilities that Orlando built many miles from downtown and heavily patrolled. Downtown Atlanta is perfect for conventions. So perfect people should need a pass just to get into the tube-connected areas. The streets surrounding our convention district MUST be clean and parasite-free. The ONLY way to solve this is with law enforcement first and diversionary programs second. Doing it the other way around will fail. Orlando actually attempted to have areas of sidewalks marked as panhandling-approved zones.

It didn’t matter, the bums and head cases always prowled Orlando day and night. The public library in downtown Orlando always smells like urine and often you find it inside as well. They also can’t control their red light district which is nearly 10 miles long. Why? Because the police are the number 2 priority in dealing with this obvious problem. Atlanta has always had beggars and they have been as aggressive as ever. THAT is the only history that needs to be examined. If it is to stop being our present and future, it’s time to pull some people off of the street and toss them into a cage. THEN we can find out where they really belong. As I understand it, the taxes to pay for such a plan have already been collected!
Grobbbbbbbbbbbbbb

Downtown Resident

September 7th, 2012
3:03 pm

As Councilman Bond has said in numerous interviews- this is about the 60-80 people who are making a living as panhandlers. I have witnessed people getting out of cars and start to ask for money. They know the convention schedule better than the ACVB. If we continue at this pace, we will continue to lose conventions to other cities. What impact is that? Jobs and Taxes.
There are jobs for hardworking individuals. The problem for our aggressive panhandlers is that they want to make their own schedules and play be their rules. If I did that, I would not have a job either.

Robyn Jackson

September 7th, 2012
2:14 pm

As a downtown resident since 1994 and daily walker through all parts of downtown I must say that panhandling has gotten worse. It’s not just homeless people – I’ve followed panhandlers to their cars parked in a $20/day parking garage. Several weeks ago I was talking to a drug addict that frequents Broad Street south” “Todd – what’s the drug of choice on Broad Street?” “Crack” “How much is crack these days?” $5 for a single hit says Todd “where do these people get $ to buy crack?” “Panhandling” says Todd…..enough said. If we can control panhandling then maybe we can stop drug addicts on the sidewalks in downtown.

Bernie

September 7th, 2012
1:57 pm

Lame Blame Game @ 1:49 pm – If you like keeping your head where it is all dark and smelly, who am i to suggest a change?

Lame Blame Game

September 7th, 2012
1:49 pm

Bernie, grow up. I have taken the time to chat with panhandlers when they approach me and I always ask them where they are from originally. News flash: they are mostly from smaller towns, and they were given a choice of a bus ticket to Atlanta or jail. Yep, they were the town trouble maker and were shipped off to Atlanta because the small town grew tired of the hassle of dealing with them week after week. All of your historical context about pre-1970’s Atlanta and where people used to shop is just a bunch of diversionary nonsense. Many of these panhandlers are fairly recent arrivals to Atlanta. Atlanta has become the dumping ground for other cities unruly citizens. They are not all African American either. I talked to a white panhandler near The Varsity who was from Eufala, AL. Vietnam Vet, who had obvious mental impairment and his family shipped him to Atlanta. His own family. They could not manage him any longer.