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City Pages

Are panhandlers frightening visitors away from downtown? Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau director Chuck Jones sure thinks so. “The panhandling problem alone could very well keep a significant portion of locals and visitors away from downtown Athens—whether it’s real or perceived intimidation,” he told county commissioners on the Legislative Review Committee last week. That standing committee will consider revising the county’s panhandling law.

Some Georgia ordinances are much stricter than Athens’, which only bars aggressive panhandlers who “accost or force [themselves] upon the company of another.” Savannah’s one-sentence ordinance bars all panhandling, period. But, ACC Attorney Bill Berryman told the committee, panhandling is a form of free speech under the United States Constitution. Savannah’s ordinance has not been tested in court, he said, and he expressed his belief that “it’s unconstitutional on its face.” None of Georgia’s court-tested ordinances are more strict than ACC’s, he said. Panhandlers are violating the law in Athens only if they continue to ask for money after once being refused, or if they block someone’s way or act threateningly. Typically, those arrested (only about five in the past 18 months) have been barred from the area where they were arrested.

Many merchants told the Athens Downtown Development Authority that they get two or three customer complaints every day about “being hustled by panhandlers,” said Kathryn Lookofsky, the ADDA’s director. People especially dislike being approached at parking meters or ATMs, “where you’ve got your purse open or your wallet out,” or while eating at sidewalk cafés.

Despite all the complaints, few arrests are made—largely because victims won’t agree to testify in court. “Most people aren’t reporting it,” said ACC Solicitor C.R. Chisholm. “They don’t want to get involved in a court case.” Out-of-town conventioneers cannot be expected to return to Athens to testify, Jones said. But ACC Chief of Police Jack Lumpkin said that Athens’ panhandling law is typical of others “across the country,” and that if police had “appropriate cooperation” from downtown employees who witness aggressive panhandling—that is, if the employees were willing to testify in court—then “we could rid ourselves of the 10 or 15 people who are causing much of the problem” without changing the law.

“What we’re hearing from citizens second-hand or third-hand, they’re not telling the police department,” Lumpkin said. Officers don’t have to see an incident themselves (and “people don’t generally commit crimes in front of uniforms”), but neither will police make an arrest without having a witness to the violation, he said. The committee will continue its review next month.