Atlanta passes ban on panhandling

Businesses complained

protesters call action an attack on the poor

August 16, 2005|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ATLANTA - After listening to hours of heated opposition from homeless people and their advocates yesterday, city officials passed a tough anti-panhandling ordinance that forbids anyone from begging for money in most of downtown.

The ordinance, approved 12-3 and backed by Mayor Shirley Franklin, has divided much of the city, with business and civic leaders firmly behind it and several religious and human rights groups opposing it. Opponents call it discriminatory because it will, in effect, ban homeless people from downtown.

"This city has no compassion for people, for those who are underprivileged," said Albert Singleton, who identified himself during a City Council meeting as a homeless veteran who has lived on the street for 15 years.

"You will take animals from the ocean and give them a home, but the people in their natural habitat have no home," he said, referring to the new Georgia Aquarium, which will open in downtown Atlanta in November.

Although city officials have described the ordinance as targeting professional panhandlers and others who routinely beg for money but are not necessarily homeless, the issue has become a debate over homelessness in Atlanta.

More than 200 people packed into City Council chambers as members debated the issue for the second time in two months. People overflowed into the foyer and sat on the floor in the aisles as about 80 took the microphone to give impassioned pleas, laden with references to the Bible, for or against the ordinance.

The new ordinance bans panhandling in much of the downtown and at the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

City officials say the new ordinance is more lenient than an earlier one because it doesn't impose jail time for first offenses, but homeless advocates said it is among the toughest in the country because it allows for up to 30 days' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine for a third offense.

"This is not just an issue about homelessness, this is a moral compass for the city of Atlanta," said former Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman, who opposed the ordinance. "This is the most reprehensible legislation that has ever come to the city. It is taking the voice away from a whole class of people and giving it to the business community."

Downtown Atlanta merchants have complained that their businesses suffer because panhandlers discourage people, particularly from the suburbs, from going to restaurants and events downtown.

Business leaders said this is not an issue about the homeless, but rather an issue about downtown survival.

"This has been wrongly cast as an ordinance against the homeless. But we want to help those who need help. We are after the aggressive panhandlers who get in people's faces and threaten them," said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a business advocacy group. "We are talking about maybe 100 hard-core aggressive panhandlers, not the homeless people."

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