[Hpn] "Cities adopt tough stance against beggars"

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Thu, 23 Jun 2005 19:54:32 -0400


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 Headline:  Cities adopt tough stance against beggars

Byline:  Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Date: 06/23/2005

 (RALEIGH, N.C.)As one of 85 licensed panhandlers in Raleigh, Leon Black is
supposed to
 stay off the streets at night and keep mum as he rattles his cup.

 But following that rule would keep him away from his best market -
 late-night club-hoppers. "Got some change?" he asks with a hangdog face
 from the sidewalk, courteously breaking the rules.

 It's the plight of the panhandler: silenced, sidelined, and maligned.
 But with up to $150 a day at stake, Mr. Black, who spends $90 a week
 for a bed in a flophouse, says it's a job like any other.

 Thirteen years after the courts struck down New York's draconian
 antipanhandling laws, the age-old issue of how to deal with the lowest
 rungs of the American economy is once again at the top of municipal
 agendas as lawmakers focus anew on freeloaders, flimflam men, and
 "unsolicited service providers," who pretend to be tour guides. To get
 around First Amendment protections, cities across the country are
 prosecuting new "aggressive panhandling" rules that focus on public
 safety and the greater economic good, all in order to deal with the No.
 1 visitor complaint to American urban areas: too many people scrounging
 for change.

 But is it really legal for municipalities to corner the market and
 silence street-savvy entrepreneurs who exhibit tenacious tactics
 similar to those that Americans cherish in their corporate boardrooms?

"In general, public parks, sidewalks, and streets are places where
 First Amendment rights are still zealously protected in this country,"
 says Ed Johnson, a lawyer for the Oregon Law Center in Portland, which
 represents the homeless. "The government can make reasonable
 restrictions on those rights as long as there's some kind of compelling
 government interest - but that's where the issue gets blurry."

 So far, cities have managed to avoid First Amendment challenges by
 citing broader societal damage from panhandlers - including safety
 concerns. Over concerns of the impact on the local economy, Fort
 Lauderdale, Fla., made its five-mile strip of beach off-limits to
 panhandlers. Orlando, Fla., has swept out beggars from certain parts of
 town, instead setting aside "blue box" zones where soliciting is
 allowed. As a result, the number of panhandlers has dropped to almost
 zero around tourist attractions.

 Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C., license their beggars, but admit it's
 mainly a means to control aggressive behavior. Minneapolis, Portland,
 Ore., Nashville, Tenn., and Evanston, Ill., are other cities in the
 process of cracking down on begging that bothers tourists.

 For many cities, panhandling is more than a grubstake: Too many people
 asking for a few bucks could cost the city thousands in lost in
 revenue. For instance, tourism officials in Atlanta claim that the city
 this year lost three conventions because of its gung-ho army of
 panhandlers who cluster downtown. At the same time, panhandlers are
 increasingly seen as successful opportunists: One beggar in Atlanta
 boasted on TV last week that he made $300 a day working in the shadows
 of the CNN Center.

 On Monday, the issue intensified when Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin
 proposed one of the toughest new anti-panhandling efforts in the
 country. Coinciding with the opening of a new 24/7 city homeless
 center, the proposed rules would create a beggar-free "tourist
 triangle" in the busiest corner of the city. In other areas,
 panhandlers would be able to sit with a cup - but could not make any
 aggressive gestures that could scare tourists, such as following,
 gesturing, or even talking.

 The new law, which will be discussed further before a final vote, would
 also outlaw outright street cons. In fact, the man outside Atlanta's
 City Hall who pushes his wheelchair home at the end of his shift could
 find himself being arrested for impersonating a handicapped person.

 Despite continued criticism and possible court challenges, business
 advocates say these new ordinances are a breakthrough compromise
 between two compelling interests: the sanctity of public streets and
 commercial interests that keep the local economy afloat.

 "We think this is huge," says Dave Wardell, vice president of public
 safety at Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown business consortium.
 "There are still particular spots where you can actually beg and
 solicit and they're reasonably placed to ... satisfy First Amendment
 concerns."

Critics say that the new rules are simply a more nuanced way for
 powerful business interests to sweep the poor out of sight. Others say
 the fight against aggressive panhandling has racial overtones since
 most panhandlers are African-American.

These sensitivities are now being played out in the courts. A New York
 judge earlier this month threw out seven recent panhandling convictions
 against Bronx panhandler Eddie Wise and more than a hundred others,
 because the charges were brought under a law that was found
 unconstitutional in 1992.

 (c) Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.  All rights reserved.

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