City DopeNews

There’s No Easy Solution to Athens’ Panhandling Problem—if It’s Even a Problem

“It shall be unlawful for any person to act in a boisterous, turbulent or agitated manner, or who shall use profane, vulgar, loud or unbecoming language while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs while on the streets, sidewalks or other public places within Athens-Clarke County.”

That’s Section 3-15-1(f) of the ACC code of ordinances. Sounds like a Bulldog fan or a college kid, right? But this ordinance doesn’t refer to them—it’s part of the code section on panhandling.

ACC law currently prohibits only “aggressive” panhandling, defined as accosting someone, asking for money repeatedly after being turned down, or causing a person to fear imminent bodily harm. “You can’t be arrested in Athens for just begging, just asking people for money,” County Attorney Bill Berryman said.

Downtown merchants who believe panhandlers hurt their businesses recently asked ACC commissioners to take another stab at tightening up the law. The last attempt to curb panhandling ended with commissioners realizing that to ban the mere act of asking for money would violate the First Amendment. They came to the same conclusion at a recent Legislative Review Committee meeting. “This is exactly where we left it last time, isn’t it?” Commissioner Doug Lowry said.

Panhandling is “one of the top three challenges” for downtown businesses, said Pam Thompson, executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority. Panhandling creates a perception that downtown is unsafe, which hurts businesses, and “victims” of panhandling are unlikely to report it because they think the law can’t be enforced, she said, quoting from a 2008 Downtown Athens Business Association report. Complaints tend to increase in the fall, when new University of Georgia students start class, and during conferences, such as a group of mainly single women who recently complained about a man holding a sign—just holding a sign—outside the Hilton Garden Inn, Thompson said.

Erin Barger, executive director of Action Ministries, which runs the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, pointed out that the ordinance doesn’t describe most panhandlers, or most homeless people, for that matter. She questioned whether the problem lies with the people who feel uncomfortable or afraid.

“It would be reasonable for a woman who looks like me to be fearful of someone who comes into Our Daily Bread,” Barger said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge that belief… Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re morally inferior.

“I’ve felt more uncomfortable regarding Section F on gameday around football fans. But I don’t have the right to restrict something that makes me uncomfortable.”

Panhandlers generally are not people who go to Our Daily Bread or are interested in taking advantage of social services, Barger said. “Several folks I’ve observed panhandling are not engaging the human services system,” she said. “It’s not a matter of the services not being available or even within walking distance.”

In fact, officials described panhandling as a job—often, panhandlers don’t need food, but rather money for alcohol or drugs. And they’re usually the same people, day after day. “If you go down to College Square about 10 ’til nine in the morning, it’s like shifts coming into work,” Thompson said.

Rarely are those panhandlers aggressive, especially since police started cracking down a few years ago. “We’ve run some sting operations in times past, and we’re about to start those again,” Lt. Gary Epps said.

The reason those stings are necessary is that people who complain about aggressive panhandlers rarely follow up. Many are from out of town, and it’s a lot to ask even an Athens resident to file a report and then testify for something so minor. But that means it’s tough for police to make a case. “We can’t make an ordinance forcing people to go to court,” Lowry said.

While downtown panhandlers generate most of the complaints, the biggest problem in recent years is panhandlers on Loop ramps, interim Police Chief Carter Greene said. Those are easier to deal with because police can simply force them to move off the right-of-way for safety reasons. They can’t do that to someone who’s sitting on a bench holding a sign.

For people who are panhandled downtown, Barger offered this advice: “Answer the problem they say they have. If it’s food, offer them food, or tell them where free food is. There’s free food seven days a week. After hours, I offer to buy them food.”

The ADDA accepts donations for homeless services using parking meters downtown, but the signage is poor, and they only bring in about $500 a year. At one point, the authority distributed cards to downtown businesses listing resources for the homeless, and Thompson suggested doing that again. But the cards wouldn’t be for panhandlers—they’d be for the marks who give them money. “It’s not the panhandlers who need to be educated,” Commissioner Andy Herod said. “It’s the general public.”

Big Data: In September, Flagpole told you about Community Platform, a partnership between Community Connection (the nonprofit referral service that runs the 211 helpline) and the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Community Platform is software that will allow nonprofits to collect data from 211 callers and by going door-to-door with iPads. 

I’m geeking out about this for several reasons. A) For the first time, service providers will know exactly what and where are the needs in the community. B) Some nonprofits play nice with others, and some don’t. This project is forcing everyone to collaborate. The system will be more efficient, and we’ll have less duplication of services. C) Selfishly, this data will lead to a lot of cool stories.

Anyway, Community Connection is about to launch Project Platform, a series of pop-up events through Nov. 23 at which volunteers will be asked to use their laptops and cellphones to input data and conduct interviews. “Basically, we’re asking people to give up their lunch breaks,” Executive Director Fenwick Broyard said.

The first event is from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30 and Friday, Oct. 31 at Hendershot’s. Grab a sandwich and start typing.