Homeless Face a Cold Shoulder Across US

Panhandlers in Richmond, Va., may need a $25 permit if city officials have their way

IN Richmond, Va., homeless panhandlers will have to apply for a license to beg under a proposed new law to be voted on by the City Council tonight. In Phoenix, Ariz., zoning authorities have ordered the city's main shelter to cut 200 beds.

In Santa Barbara, Calif., homeless residents sleeping on city streets are now subject to arrest following the passage of a two-month-old anti-sleeping law.

In Washington, D.C., voters last month defeated a referendum that would have guaranteed a city shelter bed to every homeless person that needed it.

In Atlanta the estimated 3,000 homeless people sleeping in abandoned buildings and parking lots would be evicted and subject to arrest under a new ordinance city now in the works.

In city after city across the United States advocates for the homeless worry attitudes toward the homeless are hardening.

They say the backlash against aid programs they convinced governments to fund in the 1980s is due to a homeless population that is spiraling out of control.

``People want the homeless problem to go away,'' said Tony Reinis, director of the California Homeless Coalition in Los Angeles. ``But instead the problem is getting worse and worse.''

As frustrations mount, political leaders tend toward easy solutions, says Nancy Nagler, who aids the homeless in Minneapolis. ``Jailing the homeless is easier than solving the complex problems that have made people homeless,'' she says. ``It's easier than building affordable housing or creating jobs that pay decent wages....''

In Richmond, Va., Sue Capers, director of the Virginia Coalition for the Homeless, says at first she couldn't believe that the City Council was considering licensing panhandlers. ``I thought it was a sick joke,'' she said. ``Who has ever heard of a homeless person having to get a license to beg. It's ridiculous.''

But Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb and City Councilman William Golding disagree. Both have introduced ordinances to license panhandling. Mr. Bobb's requires panhandlers to pay a $25 fee for their licenses and another $25 to renew it every three months. Mr. Golding's ordinance waves the fees.

Both ordinances mandate a jail sentence for second-time offenders. First-time offenders, as well as those applying for the license, would be hooked up with local social-service providers to assist them in finding shelters, feeding programs, and government financial aid.

Both ordinances would prohibit panhandling within 50 feet of a store.

Ms. Capers says she doesn't believe hooking up more homeless people with the social service system will do any good. She says Richmond is unable to provide enough shelters beds and food for the homeless population.

Capers says there are 469 beds for the homeless in a city where the homeless population is over a thousand. ``Last year 2,487 people were turned away from Richmond shelters,'' she says.

Golding says aggressive panhandlers are intimidating people from shopping downtown, and that businesses are hurting. But Capers says that city officials are using the homeless as a scapegoat for the city's economic downturn.

In Martinsburg, W.Va., with a population of 14,000, Mayor Tony Senacal has decided to ban panhandling. The City Council will meet on Thursday night to vote on the mayor's proposal.

Mayor Senacal says the city's nine homeless panhandlers are just ``bums.''

``They refuse to work in a fast-food restaurant flipping hamburgers for $4 an hour because they can make twice as much an hour panhandling,'' he says.

The mayor said Martinsburg residents ``are tired of being their brother's keeper. I call it social consciousness fatigue.''

Michael Stoops, assistant director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., says at least 12 major cities have passed measures curbing panhandling in the last two years.

Mr. Stoops says that while anti-panhandling laws are aimed at the homeless, only 1 percent of homeless people panhandle.

Perhaps no major US city is experencing a bigger backlash against homelessness than Phoenix, Ariz. Last January, the city officials shut down the main downtown shelter's outdoor camping area, reducing the shelter's capacity by 200 beds.

Feeding programs, social service programs, and a mail pickup center that served homeless people not living in the shelter were ordered to move.

And last month, when the shelter appealed to a city zoning board, the board not only endorsed the orginial zoning officer's decision, but ordered the shelter to cut another 200 beds.

Over the summer a city feeding program was ordered by the city to stop serving homeless in the parks. Another feeding program that was forced to leave the city shelter was told it would not be given a licensing permit to operate a nearby soup kitchen.

And early last month, a homeless group giving out breakfast to the homeless on city streets was told that it would need a special permit to continue to operate the program. A hearing has been scheduled for later this month but Phoenix homeless advocate Louisa Stark said it looks unlikely the city will grant the permit.

``The city has made it clear they don't want feeding programs operating,'' she said. The city of Phoenix has also over the last few months started asking storeowners to post `no trespassing' signs and then has arrested homeless people sleeping by those stores.

``The homeless problem wouldn't go away, so people have decided to blame the victim,'' says Stark. ``Americans want a quick fix. If we can't cure the homeless problem then it must be the homeless people's fault.''

Ted Brookhart, Phoenix's Deputy Zoning Administrator, made the orginial January decision against the outdoor shelter.

``Downtown residents and businesses were having their neighborhood overrun by the homeless because of the shelter and all the other programs,'' Mr. Brookhart says. ``You had people from the shelter panhandling in the neighborhood. A 70-year-old homeowner getting a knock on the door from a unshaven homeless man is a very scary experience.''

While Phoenix may be extreme, Stoops says simlar actions against the homeless are taking place in many other cities.

In Atlanta homeless advocate Anita Batty says heated community opposition has forced many shelters to cut back on the number of available beds.

``We had one shelter that used to allow 250 persons,'' says Ms. Batty. ``Now the limit is 65 and they must have a job.''

Batty says police have been making sweeps through the city over the last few months, arresting the homeless in downtown. With the city planning a new ordinance to prohibit homeless people from sleeping in abandoned apartment buildings and parking lots, Batty says the message is clear: ``The homeless are in for a rough time. Many Americans are tired of the problem.''

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