Cities adopt tough stance against beggars

Municipalities are making arrests under 'aggressive panhandling' laws despite freedom of speech concerns.

As one of 85 licensed panhandlers in Raleigh, Leon Black is supposed to stay off the streets at night and keep mum as he rattles his cup.

But following that rule would keep him away from his best market - late-night club-hoppers. "Got some change?" he asks with a hangdog face from the sidewalk, courteously breaking the rules.

It's the plight of the panhandler: silenced, sidelined, and maligned. But with up to $150 a day at stake, Mr. Black, who spends $90 a week for a bed in a flophouse, says it's a job like any other.

Thirteen years after the courts struck down New York's draconian antipanhandling laws, the age-old issue of how to deal with the lowest rungs of the American economy is once again at the top of municipal agendas as lawmakers focus anew on freeloaders, flimflam men, and "unsolicited service providers," who pretend to be tour guides. To get around First Amendment protections, cities across the country are prosecuting new "aggressive panhandling" rules that focus on public safety and the greater economic good, all in order to deal with the No. 1 visitor complaint to American urban areas: too many people scrounging for change.

But is it really legal for municipalities to corner the market and silence street-savvy entrepreneurs who exhibit tenacious tactics similar to those that Americans cherish in their corporate boardrooms?

"In general, public parks, sidewalks, and streets are places where First Amendment rights are still zealously protected in this country," says Ed Johnson, a lawyer for the Oregon Law Center in Portland, which represents the homeless. "The government can make reasonable restrictions on those rights as long as there's some kind of compelling government interest - but that's where the issue gets blurry."

So far, cities have managed to avoid First Amendment challenges by citing broader societal damage from panhandlers - including safety concerns. Over concerns of the impact on the local economy, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., made its five-mile strip of beach off-limits to panhandlers. Orlando, Fla., has swept out beggars from certain parts of town, instead setting aside "blue box" zones where soliciting is allowed. As a result, the number of panhandlers has dropped to almost zero around tourist attractions.

Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C., license their beggars, but admit it's mainly a means to control aggressive behavior. Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Nashville, Tenn., and Evanston, Ill., are other cities in the process of cracking down on begging that bothers tourists.

For many cities, panhandling is more than a grubstake: Too many people asking for a few bucks could cost the city thousands in lost in revenue. For instance, tourism officials in Atlanta claim that the city this year lost three conventions because of its gung-ho army of panhandlers who cluster downtown. At the same time, panhandlers are increasingly seen as successful opportunists: One beggar in Atlanta boasted on TV last week that he made $300 a day working in the shadows of the CNN Center.

On Monday, the issue intensified when Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin proposed one of the toughest new anti-panhandling efforts in the country. Coinciding with the opening of a new 24/7 city homeless center, the proposed rules would create a beggar-free "tourist triangle" in the busiest corner of the city. In other areas, panhandlers would be able to sit with a cup - but could not make any aggressive gestures that could scare tourists, such as following, gesturing, or even talking.

The new law, which will be discussed further before a final vote, would also outlaw outright street cons. In fact, the man outside Atlanta's City Hall who pushes his wheelchair home at the end of his shift could find himself being arrested for impersonating a handicapped person.

Despite continued criticism and possible court challenges, business advocates say these new ordinances are a breakthrough compromise between two compelling interests: the sanctity of public streets and commercial interests that keep the local economy afloat.

"We think this is huge," says Dave Wardell, vice president of public safety at Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown business consortium. "There are still particular spots where you can actually beg and solicit and they're reasonably placed to ... satisfy First Amendment concerns."

Critics say that the new rules are simply a more nuanced way for powerful business interests to sweep the poor out of sight. Others say the fight against aggressive panhandling has racial overtones since most panhandlers are African-American.

These sensitivities are now being played out in the courts. A New York judge earlier this month threw out seven recent panhandling convictions against Bronx panhandler Eddie Wise and more than a hundred others, because the charges were brought under a law that was found unconstitutional in 1992.

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