Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Begging ban elicits jubilation, criticism

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionPublished on: 08/17/05
When Kristin Randall walks home late at night after waiting tables in downtown Atlanta, panhandlers often follow her all the way to her apartment.
When she leaves in the morning, they're waiting for her on the sidewalk. There is no escaping them, she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Randall, 24, was sitting in a plaza along Peachtree Street, in the heart of the city's tourist area. She had just brushed off a young man who asked her for money, and then a date. "I hate the panhandlers. They're very aggressive," she said. "They just don't understand 'no.' "
Randall, 24, is among the downtown residents, workers and business people thrilled by the City Council's vote Monday to ban panhandling.
Even as many rejoice, however, the city could face a lawsuit, with critics saying the ban is unconstitutional.
When Mayor Shirley Franklin signs the legislation — she said she will do so by Friday — it will be illegal to voice a request for money or items of value within a "tourist triangle" downtown and at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
Franklin said she supports the ordinance because it will prohibit panhandling while also providing alternatives for the needy. The legislation requires that repeat violators be assessed for services. The city intends to steer them to the 24/7 Gateway Center, a homeless service center that opened last month. The center is supposed to provide food, shelter, clothing, restrooms and referrals to treatment for mental illness, substance abuse and other problems.
The mayor predicted the ban would clear the streets of panhandlers. "I believe it is the right approach, which is to combine services with law enforcement," she said.
Poor people who wander downtown were not happy with the ban.
"How could you lock a homeless person up for asking for 50 cents?" asked Gregory Hill, who was leaving Centennial Olympic Park on his way to a homeless shelter. Hill, 50, said he is paid $8 an hour occasionally to picket for a union but sometimes panhandles for food. "It ain't right," he said of the ban. "It's like the rich people are preying on the poor people."
Gerald Weber, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said the ban goes too far in constraining free speech.
Courts have upheld panhandling bans in other cities, such as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where begging is illegal along five miles of city beach. But a downtown area is different from a beach, whose purpose generally is limited to recreation, Weber said. The ban will cover a "huge swath" of downtown Atlanta, where "people are engaging in free speech in a constant manner," he said. And Atlanta's ban goes further, proscribing panhandling throughout the city after nightfall and within 15 feet of ATMs and other locations.
" 'Brother, can you spare a dime?' is protected speech under the Constitution if you ask it in a nice way," Weber said. "What the courts have said in Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere is you have to have narrow restrictions on that sort of core protected speech."
Weber said he would recommend to the ACLU board of directors next month that the organization sue the city on constitutional grounds.
Franklin said she was once a member of the ACLU board and is "concerned" about a suit. But she said the city's Law Department reviewed the legislation and advised that it could be defended. "We hope that it would withstand any legal challenge," she said.
Tim Turner, a waiter at the Hard Rock Cafe, spoke passionately at a council meeting last month about panhandlers accosting customers. On Tuesday, he said he still was happy the ban would become law, but he worried about the consequences for some of the homeless people he talks to outside the restaurant.
"Are we going to help the homeless first . . . before they start arresting the panhandlers?" he said. "I'm glad about it [the ban]. It's just there's going to be a lot of mistakes made."


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