Atlanta Passes Downtown Panhandling Ban

Atlanta's City Council passes an ordinance to ban panhandling within part of downtown Atlanta. Business leaders urged the ban, saying they want more tourists to visit downtown Atlanta. Homeless advocates say the ban is unconstitutional and the city should be doing more to help the homeless. Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Like many cities, Atlanta has seen an increase in panhandling. And on the street, the panhandlers and the panhandled see the situation very differently.

Unidentified Man #1: The guy over there, he pretty much has a panhandling shift. He's there from, like, 9 in the morning till about 3, and he's sitting in the same spot all day. He could be going to get a job.

Unidentified Man #2: I use the Lord's word, `Ask and it shall be given.' I ask people to help me. But society's put a stigma on it; they call it panhandling, so I don't know what that means.

Unidentified Man #3: Walking down the street, you get hit up several times a day. It is kind of annoying. I'd rather just give to the homeless shelter than have them coming up and--you know, every few minutes.

SIEGEL: That was Jay Williams, Robert Davis(ph) and Jeff Matthews talking about panhandling in Atlanta. Well, today Atlanta's City Council passed an ordinance banning panhandling in part of its downtown. The vote was 12-to-3. The ban will apply to an area designated as a tourist triangle. Business leaders said they believe that it'll help draw more visitors. Homeless advocates call the ban unconstitutional and say the city should be doing more to help the homeless. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Susanna Capelouto is with us from Atlanta City Hall.

And first, Susanna, tell us what this ban actually does.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO reporting:

Well, as soon as the mayor signs it, it will keep people from verbally asking for money in this so-called tourist triangle. It would also keep people from asking for money within 15 feet from ATM machines, public rest rooms and the like all over the city. Basically, they can't come up to somebody and say, `Hey, I'm hungry. Give me a quarter.' But they can still hold a sign that says that. And violators would get a warning ticket for the first offense, and by the third offense, they can get a $1,000 and 30 days in jail. And the opponents have always said that this will criminalize the homeless.

SIEGEL: Now the vote in the City Council was 12-to-3; that's overwhelmingly in favor of this new law. But I gather the debate was still quite contentious.

CAPELOUTO: It was very, very contentious. And this is the third time the City Council tried. You know, there were homeless people there, homeless advocates, businesspeople, downtown residents, a big mix of people. But after the vote, people just started screaming. One homeless man had to be escorted out by police. They ran through the halls and screamed, `Shame, shame, shame.' And they were very, very disappointed that the city actually passed this, and they basically said that the city has sold out the people of Atlanta. I mean, they're very upset that this passed.

SIEGEL: Well, Atlanta business interests seem to be pleased with this and supported it. Tell us a little background here about how this came about.

CAPELOUTO: Well, Atlanta is in the midst of a renewal in downtown. It's probably the biggest renewal since the '96 Olympics. In November, the Georgia Aquarium will open in this tourist triangle, and it will be the largest aquarium in the world. It will bring thousands of people. It is built by Bernie Marcus, the founder of Home Depot, and he is spending $200 million of his own money. It's his gift, he says, to the people of Georgia. And he has said that the panhandling ban is needed for the aquarium to be successful, and he's received a lot of criticism for that, and that's why a lot of people have said that the corporations are now buying out City Hall. But Atlanta is also bidding for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which would also be in that tourist triangle.

SIEGEL: Now homeless advocates have said the city do more for the homeless. What is the city of Atlanta doing to help the homeless population?

CAPELOUTO: Well, what the city's been doing is it's started up a new shelter in downtown. It converted a jail into a shelter with 300 beds. It's on the edge of downtown. It has a lot of services attached to those beds. And you know it was funded also by the business community. But homeless advocates says it's just not enough, that the city has 7,000 homeless and 300 beds is not enough; more should be done. They also say there is not enough affordable housing in downtown. So, you know, it's a double-edged sword there for they city. They say they're doing something, but they're not doing enough. They're being criticized for that.

SIEGEL: And just briefly before you go, the act that puts one in violation of this law is...

CAPELOUTO: The act, the ordinance: If you ask someone for a quarter or you ask him for a donation on the street in the tourist triangle, you're violating the ordinance.

SIEGEL: Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting, thanks very much.

CAPELOUTO: Thank you, Robert.

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