A vote by a deeply divided City Council on legislation to combat aggressive and persistent panhandling appears unlikely to end a controversy over whether Atlanta has crafted a workable solution to the problem.
After a heated debate Monday, the council voted 9-5 to amend the city’s commercial solicitation ordinance to provide for tougher enforcement: up to 180 days in jail for a conviction.
Mayor Kasim Reed plans to veto the legislation, according to spokesman Reese McCranie, because “it does not sufficiently address homelessness and aggressive panhandling in a holistic manner.
“Mayor Reed plans on announcing a comprehensive plan soon which will focus on tackling this complicated matter in a humane and less punitive way,” McCranie said Tuesday in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The ordinance makes it illegal to block someone’s path while asking them for money. Panhandlers are prohibited from following or walking alongside people they are soliciting, using profane or abusive language, or touching the solicited person. They also cannot make “any statement, gesture, or other communication which a reasonable person … would perceive to be a threat,” according to the ordinance.
The city’s current panhandling ordinance is rarely, if ever, enforced, according to police and attorneys. Panhandlers have been arrested for related charges such as disorderly conduct, however.
Various proposals to toughen the city’s approach to panhandlers have come under fire in recent weeks from some advocates for the homeless, who said the city would be victimizing the needy.
Last month, Joe Beasley, southeastern regional director for the Rainbow PUSH coalition, said a crackdown on aggressive panhandling was a thinly-veiled attack on “undesirables.”
Keisha Lance Bottoms, an attorney who represents part of southwest Atlanta on the City Council, said she wondered whether parts of the proposed ordinance were legally enforceable.
City Attorney Cathy Hampton said the city’s law department had not been able to vet the constitutionality of Councilman Michael Julian Bond’s amendment.
“It is my intent to address what my constituents say is a problem,” said Bond, chairman of the council’s public safety committee. “We need to change behavior. I want to be clear: This paper is not about homelessness. It’s about aggressive panhandling.”
Councilwoman Cleta Winslow of south Atlanta said she has been panhandled at gas stations and elsewhere, and has been cussed out after refusing to give money.
“This city is just at a breaking point,” she said. “We need to get a better handle on this.”