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.