Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The city of Atlanta adopted another new panhandling law this week. Pushed by Mayor Kasim Reed, it outlaws begging for money within 15 feet of a building entrance or exit. Reed vetoed a new ordinance last month that would have added jail time for aggressive panhandling. Today, Reed writes about the new law, while one of the pillars of Atlanta’s faith community urges officials not to forget their commitment to social services, which can help keep the less fortunate from soliciting on the streets.
Commenting is open below following Alvin Sugarman’s column. Please keep the discussion civilized. Thank you.
By Kasim Reed
The Atlanta City Council took an important step forward this week by unanimously passing legislation to curtail aggressive panhandling throughout our city.
For more than seven years, the city has not been able to effectively address this issue. A 2005 ordinance, though well-intended, made it nearly impossible for the city to enforce its monetary solicitation laws. The Atlanta Police Department made more than 1,300 panhandling arrests in 2004; that number dropped to zero from 2005 to the present.
The substitute legislation sponsored by Councilmember Keisha Lance Bottoms and Councilmember Michael Julian Bond and approved by a 14-0 vote accomplishes our collective goal of a reasonable, humane and enforceable way to stop aggressive panhandling.
Like the city’s 1996 and 2005 law, the new ordinance outlaws asking for money within 15 feet of ATM machines and parking lot pay boxes. The new law adds to that provision by prohibiting the solicitation of money from someone who is within 15 feet of a building entrance or exit or standing in line to enter a building or event facility. It expands the definition of aggressive panhandling by prohibiting someone from continuing to ask for money after he or she has been told “no.” The new law also outlaws touching during monetary solicitation and sets reasonable penalties for violators. Most important, we are confident this measure is constitutional and, therefore, enforceable.
Upon first conviction, a violator could be sentenced to community service. A second conviction for aggressive panhandling would result in a mandatory minimum 30 days in jail. Upon the third or future convictions, aggressive panhandlers would be required to serve a mandatory minimum of 90 days in jail.
These measures are vital to our city. The convention and tourism industry is one of Atlanta’s core businesses, pumping about $9 billion per year into our local economy. I am committed to a clean, safe downtown that visitors and residents can enjoy without being harassed.
At the same time, I have made addressing the challenges facing the city’s homeless men, women and children a top priority. Over the years, Atlanta’s political, business and civic leaders have made significant inroads in addressing homelessness, and I want to build on that hard work and momentum. We have an opportunity to encourage a greater collaborative approach that can lead to innovative solutions to end chronic homelessness. My administration aims to transform how the city helps our citizens, and we are achieving verifiable results.
This summer, as part of a national campaign, Atlanta re-housed 131 chronically homeless veterans in 100 days, more than any other city in America. The city has transitioned more than 200 chronically homeless veterans off the streets into clean, affordable housing since June and we have committed to ending chronic homelessness among veterans in the next 15 months. We are reprioritizing our resources, creating incentives for housing and services providers to take on the hardest cases, and collecting data to help us identify and better serve the homeless. As part of that effort, we will assess panhandlers when they are arrested and determine if they need services such as mental heath care, substance abuse treatment, job training and housing.
I am absolutely committed to making Atlanta a great place to live, an inspiring place to work and a wonderful place to visit. With the new panhandling ordinance, our neighborhoods will be safe for visitors and residents, and at the same time, we will be better positioned to assist our most vulnerable citizens.
Kasim Reed is Mayor of Atlanta.
By Alvin Sugarman
Not one of us is immune to the fears and frustrations of being accosted by aggressive panhandling. The Higher Ground group – a collection of religious leaders which includes myself, the Rev. Joseph Roberts, Rev. Joanna Adams and Imam Plemon El-Amin – affirms the steps that are being taken by our city council and Mayor Kasim Reed to create as safe and comfortable an environment as possible, both for our residents and for those visiting our city.
We also recognize that there well may be a distinction between those truly in need and those who have chosen a path of “professional” panhandling. We affirm the constitutional rights of both to seek funds from the public, as long as those seeking funds do so in a non-threatening manner.
However, our task is to seek a higher ground of understanding, or a spiritual context if you will, of what this newest panhandling legislation means. It is quite possible that some who are not destitute have chosen to panhandle as a means of earning a living. That is a choice they have made, and whenever they violate the restrictions of this new legislation they should face the consequences of their actions.
But we also believe that those who are truly destitute would never have chosen to beg if they had any other possibilities for surviving.
This new legislation provides an opportunity for all of us living in Atlanta to reflect on who and what we are as citizens of this great city. This new panhandling ordinance spends a great deal of time spelling out exactly where it is unlawful for someone to solicit money. There must be a 15-foot barrier between someone soliciting funds and those being solicited in certain specific locations such as an automated teller machine, a parking lot pay box, a pay telephone, and an entrance or exit of any building.
But can we ever really be separated from our fellow human beings? Is there not a spiritual and human connection between each of us, no matter the circumstances of our lives?
It is worth noting that the origin of the word “panhandle” refers to the outstretched arm, or handle, of a pan. Remember, for a moment, the first time you ever extended your arm into a baby’s crib. Can you not still feel that baby’s grasp on to the fingers of your outstretched arm?
For a variety of reasons, many beyond our understanding, those on the streets of our city, are seeking our help. We implore our city council, mayor, county officials and our judicial system to live up to the commitment implied in this legislation to do everything possible to bring the social services needed to help those who most need those services.
Alvin Sugarman is former senior rabbi at the Temple in Atlanta. He writes for the Higher Ground Group at highergroundgroup.org.