Atlanta Poised to Get Tough on Panhandling
ED GORDON, host:
Who's a downtown for? In Atlanta, homeless people and their advocates are debating that question with elected officials and the business community. The spark is a proposed city ban on panhandling. From Atlanta, Joshua Levs reports.
JOSHUA LEVS reporting:
Danny Solomon is a 57-year-old trained chef, but his fellow Atlantans might see him standing outside a McDonald's asking for money.
Mr. DANNY SOLOMON (Panhandler): And then I would say, `Pardon me, sir, my name is Danny and I'm homeless and I'm very hungry. I haven't eaten in about two days. I'd appreciate any spare change that you may have or whatever you could spare me. Thank you.'
LEVS: For the last five months, he's been staying in Atlanta's Open Door Community, which houses and feeds some homeless people. Solomon says he averages $25 or $30 a day from panhandling and uses it to buy food or cigarettes.
Mr. SOLOMON: I do know people that, from my experience on the street, that do panhandle for a living. This is how they survive, and to them, it's just a hustle. But there are--the majority of people that ask people for money actually need it.
LEVS: A proposed city ordinance would make that illegal in much of downtown Atlanta. The idea infuriates Murphy Davis, a Presbyterian minister who works at Open Door.
Reverend MURPHY DAVIS (Open Door Community): This is empowerment of police power to sweep the poor under the rug. And I think the important issue here is the criminalization of poverty, which has been a trend in the United States for a long time.
LEVS: A group called the Martin Luther King Campaign for Economic Justice launched a protest against the ordinance. Vice President Tony Sinkfield was once homeless himself.
Mr. TONY SINKFIELD (Vice President, Martin Luther King Campaign for Economic Justice): It's a violation of freedoms of speech and the right to exist.
LEVS: An Atlanta City Council member who's leading the effort for the ban says it would curb freedom of speech, but he says there's a compelling governmental interest.
Mr. LAMAR WILLIS (Atlanta City Council): We're trying to make sure that we don't erode the economic base of this city.
LEVS: Lamar Willis says panhandling is keeping some people away from downtown, threatening the convention and tourism business that generates $3 billion a year.
Mr. WILLIS: When businesses refuse to remain in downtown Atlanta, when conventioneers and tourists refuse to come into downtown Atlanta, if we can't undergird that, then we are going to be in a world of trouble.
LEVS: A group called Central Atlanta Progress helped shape the legislation. Its president, A.J. Robinson, says visitors and locals frequently complain the panhandling makes them feel unsafe.
Mr. A.J. ROBINSON (President, Central Atlanta Progress): Absolutely, and particularly at night. If you're accosted on the street at night by somebody who looks menacing, it creates a lot of fear. It's the number-one thing that people complain about our downtown community.
LEVS: He says there's no hard proof panhandling has cost Atlanta a convention, but he says it's a real problem. Competitor cities like Las Vegas and Miami have tough anti-panhandling laws. Councilman Willis proposed an ordinance, and Mayor Shirley Franklin recently submitted a similar one. The proposed legislation would allow panhandlers three strikes. At first, they'd be warned and be told about resources for homeless and hungry people, including a 340-bed center opening this summer. The third time, they could be jailed or fined. Willis says that's aimed at the professional panhandlers. He denies any efforts to hide Atlanta's poor.
Mr. WILLIS: We want to help our homeless population, but at the same time if we erode the economic fiber of this city, there will be no one to help us help them.
LEVS: He says he grew up poor in Atlanta, and he's knows it's possible to get by without panhandling. It's unclear whether the ordinance will pass. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta.
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