Athens officials offer no change to panhandling ordinance

Business owners will not get their wish for a new panhandling ordinance in downtown Athens—at least, not now.

After months of research and legal consultation, city officials decided to postpone the discussion of a new, stricter panhandling law within the downtown district.  Instead, the city decided to spend $1,000 on “educating” citizens and panhandlers on the current ordinance in Athens.

And at least one long-time downtown business owner feels the decision is an “insult.”

The city commission had recently asked the Legislative Review Committee to look at possible alternatives and changes to the current panhandling law after business owners complained that panhandlers were driving away customers and visitors.

Anne Shepherd, owner of Chick Piano downtown since 1964, serves on the Downtown Athens Business Association and says panhandling has been a concern for years.

“I’ve been downtown since 1964, and we never had problems, real problems, with panhandlers until the unification [of Athens and Clarke County] in the early 1990s,” said Shepherd. “I don’t know where they came from, but they come out of the woodwork.”

City officials and business owners reviewed other cities’ panhandling ordinances in an attempt to find a model that Athens could use.

One possible solution the LRC discussed would have outlawed panhandling near ATMs, outside restaurant patios, parking meters and other places where money is exchanged—a recommendation from the Athens Downtown Development Authority.

Still, legal obstacles and problems with enforcing a new ordinance stopped commissioners from moving forward with outlawing panhandling altogether, said commissioner Alice Kinman.

“During the discussion, it kept coming back to enforcement. To get a conviction in [panhandling] cases, you have to go to criminal court,” said Kinman, a member of the Legislative Review Committee. “If you were to strengthen the ordinance, you still have to go to court to enforce a complaint. We realized we’d be spending resources on expanding our ordinance, and there would be costs with that, without reaching a solution the problem.”

The cities that officials and merchants reviewed are all similar to Athens, Shepherd says.

“We’ve tried and contacted different cities that are college towns and found out what those cities do about [panhandling]. We’ve brought those plans to commissioners and they say ‘it won’t work,’” Shepherd said. “But it works everywhere else. I can’t understand why it works everywhere else but it doesn’t work in Athens.”

Kinman said that city employees will work on how to educate the public on the issue of panhandling, using money from a few possible sources, including a city contingency fund.

“We have a staff that works on policy information and does this sort of thing on a regular basis. We’ve asked them to recommend how to spend the money,” Kinman said. “We’ve talked about things like flyers and maybe signage downtown. We want to get information to business owners as well.”

Shepherd, however, believes the public, including panhandlers, understands panhandling and the ordinance.

“It’s an insult to the taxpayers of Clarke County to think that they have to be educated. They all know what panhandlers do. The taxpayers are fully aware of what goes on,” said Shepherd. “A lot of the people that panhandle have homes, and I watch them get dropped off in nice cars to sit on the street all day.”

The commission planned to evaluate its panhandling education system in 2013, but Shepherd says that may be too long.

“It’s just not fair to the people who shop downtown and people who own businesses to allow panhandling to go on,” said Shepherd. “It’s a recurring problem, and if something isn’t done, more and more people are going to stop coming downtown because they just don’t want to put up with [panhandling].

Business owners can help the situation though, Kinman says.

“Business owners were reluctant to prosecute panhandlers for fear of retaliation. The only thing that will get panhandlers’ attention is vigorous prosecution,” said Kinman. “If the people being victimized by panhandlers won’t prosecute, then no change in the ordinance will help.”

Shepherd’s solution to keeping panhandlers away is simple, but other business owners need to come together to end panhandling, she says.

“When they get in front of my store, I chase them off,” said Shepherd. “There aren’t many business owners that want to be vocal. If the merchants would band together, we could get something done.”

Until then, says Kinman, the only people begging for change in downtown Athens will be the panhandlers themselves.

“We need the people who are downtown regularly, who own businesses, to help us out with this,” said Kinman.

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