Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed supports new panhandling ordinance

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed threw his weight behind new anti-panhandling legislation this week after vetoing a competing proposal passed by the City Council.

The latest plan, unveiled at a City Hall press conference, strikes a balance between tough enforcement and humane services for the homeless, the first-term mayor said.

The proposed law would make it illegal to monetarily solicit someone who is within 15 feet of a building entrance or exit, or is standing in line to enter a building or event facility. Panhandlers would be prohibited from continuing to ask for money after they have been told “no” and would not be permitted to touch people from whom they are asking money.

The legislation applies equally throughout the city, making no special provisions for tourist areas. It sets minimum penalties of 30 days in jail for a second conviction and 90 days after a third conviction. The plan will be considered by City Council on Monday.

Michael Julian Bond, chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee, called the new proposal sound policy.

“Getting tough [on aggressive panhandlers] is something that is required,” he said. “It’s not something people enjoy doing. It’s not pretty, but I think we will send a strong message to deter and hopefully we won’t have to imprison people.”

Aggressive panhandling has proved a vexing challenge for Atlanta’s police department as well as for city officials who want the city to present a welcoming face to roughly 37 million visitors a year.

City attorneys say no one has been arrested or prosecuted under the city’s commercial solicitation ordinance since it was passed in 2005, although panhandlers have been arrested for disorderly conduct.

City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, a former prosecutor, defense attorney and magistrate judge, called the current law “a defense attorney’s dream and a prosecutor’s nightmare.”

Meanwhile, residents and public officials have complained of aggressive panhandling in grocery stores, at gas stations and around MARTA terminals.

The latest proposal was billed as a compromise between Reed and Bond, who had pushed for a crackdown on aggressive panhandlers, some of whom, Bond said, were not even homeless and had been emboldened by lax enforcement. Bond’s legislation would have allowed for sentences up to 180 days in jail following a conviction.

After the City Council passed that legislation last week, Reed vetoed it on Tuesday, saying the measure would add punitive provisions to an unworkable law. He also cited the potential cost to the city.

In 2004, the year before Atlanta’s regulations were loosened, more than 1,300 people were arrested for begging in Atlanta, Reed said. At $70 a night to house an inmate, that level of enforcement could strain the city’s jail, he said.

Reed and Bond said the changes were calibrated to help the needy but also send a strong message against panhandlers who try to bully and intimidate residents and visitors.

“Councilman Bond was very focused on making sure aggressive panhandling was dealt with,” Reed said. “He wanted to make sure that was addressed and I agree with him. I think we have come to an important agreement …. The council member does his work and I do mine and we got together and hammered out a deal.”