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Despite complaints about panhandling by downtown merchants and visitors, most don’t bother to report it to the police, ACC Police Chief Jack Lumpkin says. Panhandling is not illegal; it is constitutionally protected free speech, ACC Attorney Bill Berryman told several county commissioners last week. “People can approach other people and ask them for money,” he said, but “aggressive” panhandling is illegal in Athens. If a panhandler continues to ask for money after once being refused, or acts threateningly or blocks someone’s way, then he is breaking the law.

But even police stings rarely catch such aggressive panhandling, so the police must depend on victims to report it. And, very few do—perhaps because the police won’t issue a citation unless there is a witness who’s willing to testify. Last year, only about five citations were issued for aggressive panhandling. Out-of-town visitors won’t likely return to testify in a panhandling case, but if downtown employees were more willing to testify, it could help discourage the “10 or 15 people who are causing much of the problem,” Lumpkin said earlier.

“If the downtown business owners—who are the ones complaining—are not willing to follow through, then I don’t see the need to do anything,” Commissioner Andy Herod said at the commission’s Legislative Review Committee meeting last week. He suggested posting flyers downtown to explain the existing ordinance. Some commissioners were particularly concerned about panhandlers who target people at ATMs or sidewalk cafes, and discussed strengthening the ordinance to make that illegal. But it’s not clear such distance limits could be defended in court, said Berryman—and if accused panhandlers can’t afford bond, “they become inmates” and the jail costs can be considerable.

Evan Mills of ACC’s Department of Human and Economic Development works regularly with the homeless citizens of Athens, a few of whom panhandle downtown or bear signs at intersections. Often, he told commissioners, “they’re doing it because they’ve got other issues.” He’s heard that panhandlers can take in perhaps $500 a week, he told Flagpole. “Some of the people out there asking for money really do need it,” he said, but “it’s hard to know.” When he himself is asked for money, he tries to steer people to a soup kitchen, or he may buy them a hot dog at The Grill, he said.

Mills coordinates the annual count of Athens’ homeless population, which remains at over 400 people. But, “the interesting thing is, the folks aren’t the same” every year, he said. “Some of them move on. Some find housing. Some get jobs. Occasionally, we’ll run into old clients at the gas station, and they’re doing really well.” Federal stimulus money helped a lot of people to find housing and start paying rent; new faces have replaced those, but they’ve typically been homeless “for months, not years,” he said. About half of Athens’ homeless make use of local homeless shelters; the other 200 are “unsheltered,” living out of rough sheds or abandoned cars, or in small camps along railways or the river. “Tent City [on the North Oconee River] has kind of dwindled down… What we’ve seen are smaller camps scattered throughout Athens.”

Unless there are complaints, the police leave the homeless alone. One person staying at a local shelter “just lost their job… they were making $80,000 a year,” said Mills. Other have mental health or drug issues, or developmental disabilities, and “other folks just have not been able to adapt to society,” he said. Perhaps a quarter of homeless people have jobs, down from around 40 percent before the economic downturn.