Athens officials seek to solve panhandling downtownPosted: February 21, 2012
It is 3 p.m. on the prettiest day in Athens in weeks, and downtown Athens is bustling with students and citizens sharing the sidewalks and soaking up the sunlight. But there is something putting a damper on the lovely day—a group of people off-putting to most downtown frequenters. Finally, Athens officials are poised to take new steps to curb this problem that downtown business owners consider a nuisance – panhandling.
That is a question Kathryn Lookofsky, director of Athens Downtown Development Authority, and other Athens officials have spent years trying to answer.
“We have discussed altering the current panhandling ordinance,” Lookofsky said. “I think the biggest solution is to get people not to donate to the panhandlers on the street, but to donate to the charities and services that offer solutions to people who are homeless or have other issues.”
In January, the Athens Legislative Review Committee discussed possibilities for tighter panhandling laws. The committee counseled with Lookofsky to find potential solutions before observing panhandling laws in cities across the country to find a model that would fit Athens.
The committee looked at Macon, Augusta, Atlanta, and Savannah, as well as Charlotte, N.C., Charlottesville, Va., Rockford, Ill., Miami Beach, Fla., and Tacoma, Wash.
Kinman, an Athens commissioner that serves on the Legislation Review Committee, said the committee will make a recommendation next week to the Athens commission, which will either accept or reject the recommendation. If accepted, the commission will vote on the ordinance within the next two months.
“The question the commission is asking itself is what is the problem we are trying to solve and what’s the public benefit from solving this problem,” said Kinman. “Businesses feel [panhandling] is keeping people away from downtown and, therefore, hurting the overall economy downtown, which of course affects the rest of the community.”
One student at the University of Virginia believes Athens could benefit from the model used in Charlottesville. The city has an area called “The Corner” with bars and restaurants similar to downtown Athens.
“Panhandling is much more passive at ‘The Corner’ than downtown Athens,” said Jordan Fulton, of Alpharetta, who transferred to UVA from the University of Georgia after his sophomore year. “In Charlottesville, panhandlers are loiters, not beggars. They don’t necessarily leave, but they just sit there. In Athens, they approach and beg.”
Athens installed parking meters on the two corners where College Avenue meets Broad Street and two more where College Avenue meets Clayton Street in 2003. The goal was to have downtown visitors donate via the meters instead of putting money directly in panhandlers’ pockets. The money from the meters is then given to homeless shelters and organizations in the Athens area.
Nearly a decade after the meters’ installation, Lookofsky believes the meters helped curve the panhandling problem but acknowledges the problem has not been resolved.
“They have been a success,” said Lookofsky. “They don’t provide near enough money to solve the problem. Everybody could have a meter, and it wouldn’t solve the problem.”
As for how much money the meters collect, Lookofsky said that fluctuates with the seasons and differs from year to year.
Just as donations come and go, panhandlers move with the activity of downtown Athens.
“[Panhandling] depends on the activities going on downtown,” said Lookofsky. “If there’s a big show at the Georgia Theatre or someplace, there will be more [panhandlers] out. If it’s pretty weather and there are people out on sidewalk cafes, they’ll be out.”
Lookofsky also said that students can perpetuate the activity of panhandlers.
“If there’s an influx of new students, [panhandlers] will be out,” said Lookofsky.
A recent study by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing showed that students are more likely to give to panhandlers than any other group, which may indicate the heavy presence of panhandlers near the University campus in Athens.
Jake Vaverka, a junior at the University of Georgia, lives in downtown Athens and has had several experiences with panhandlers.
“Every time I go to put change in the [parking] meter, I get asked for money,” said Vaverka, who also works downtown during evenings at The Mad Hatter. “I pass the same [panhandlers] every morning, and they never ask. It happens more at night.”
One city’s panhandling model that Athens officials have discussed adopting works to cease begging for money at night. Charlotte, N.C., made it illegal to panhandle after dark, as well as at ATMs and outdoor dining areas. Athens officials discussed a similar ordinance.
“Downtown business owners and the Athens visitors bureau are interested in limiting panhandling in certain situations, like when people are at places where money is being exchanged,” said Kinman. “They’re suggesting we limit panhandling a certain distance from parking meters, ATM machines and outdoor cafes.”
Kinman believes if changes are made the ordinance will reflect the wishes of business owners. However, aside from restrictions near locations where money is exchanged, the current ordinance would remain everywhere else.
The law currently in Athens maintains that only aggressive panhandlers can be prosecuted and face a $70 fine. Lookofsky said that if visitors encounter an aggressive panhandler, they must call the police.
Kinman said one issue with the current law is that “the bar is set pretty high for aggressive panhandling.”
According to the current law, aggressive panhandling includes the approached person receives or fears bodily harm or the panhandler continued asking after receiving a negative response. Impeding a person’s path after denial also falls under aggressive panhandling.
The future ordinance requires victims of panhandling to report the incident and testify in court, a problem Kinman said may keep the solution from working.
“One advantage of a law that says you cannot panhandle within a certain amount of feet from specific locations is that it is pretty easy to get a visual of where that person was standing when he or she asks you for money,” said Kinman. “But in order for panhandlers to be prosecuted, the victim has to testify in court. That’s a real obstacle to the ordinance being enforced since a lot of victims are visitors and don’t want to come back to Athens for that reason.”
The committee must find a way to not violate the First Amendment when creating the new law, according to Kinman.
“It’s tough to say how you differentiate freedom of speech for someone you know asking you for money downtown and a stranger asking you for a dollar,” Kinman said. “If you banned panhandling, you’d be saying a homeless person is allowed to say anything but cannot ask for money.”
Kinman said the Legislative Review Committee is responsible for reviewing court cases involving the panhandling model in cities that officials are considering.
“There have been instances where government can limit speech as long as there’s a public benefit. That’s when [the ordinance] holds up in court,” said Kinman. “That’s what we’re looking at.”
Lookofsky said that if the ordinance passes gauging its success would be simple.
“We’d see less complaints from visitors and guests downtown about being harassed on the streets for money,” said Lookofsky.
Kinman said the amount of complaints would be one of two ways to gauge the success of a new law.
“Another thing to look at would be how many actual arrests or prosecutions from panhandling,” Kinman said. “If those go up, maybe that is the measure of success.”
Lookofsky believes panhandling will still occur if the new law passes.
“I don’t know that we can end [panhandling], but we can be more aggressive about discouraging it,” said Lookofsky, who thinks educating the public about services to help people with their needs will go a long way towards curving the panhandling problem.
“If panhandlers weren’t making money, they wouldn’t be out there,” Lookofsky said.
Until the commission votes, the panhandlers continue to hover over visitors like a dark cloud over downtown Athens even on the sunniest days.