If a panhandling ban is passed but nobody enforces it, what's the point?
Last year, tourism and convention industry leaders pushed City Council to pass a controversial law prohibiting panhandling in a specific downtown "tourism triangle." Proponents of the ban said it would help prevent conventions whose members had grown tired of Atlanta's over-eager beggars from relocating to rival cities.
But seven months later, the Atlanta Police Department has yet to issue a single citation for violating the panhandling ban, according to Lt. Trudy Boyce. Instead, officers have concentrated on issuing warnings and have used the ordinance to steer the city's homeless toward the Gateway Center homeless shelter and Grady Memorial Hospital.
Boyce, who heads the Homeless Outreach and Panhandling Enforcement team, says the police department doesn't intend to issue any citations, either.
"The focus of the commercial solicitation ordinance is to get people into services, and that's our focus," Boyce says.
Boyce's team has referred more than 1,000 people to the Gateway Center since August, she says.
Dave Wardell, vice president of operations and safety for downtown booster group Central Atlanta Progress, says the city's panhandling ban had an immediate impact when it was passed last August. For the first five months, Wardell says, downtown panhandling nearly disappeared.
But he says that over the last two months, panhandlers have returned with a vengeance. According to Wardell, CAP has been bombarded by complaints about panhandlers from conventioneers. He estimates that roughly 60 percent of his day is spent responding to those complaints.
Why the resurgence? Wardell believes panhandlers figured out that police are not enforcing the ban.
But not all panhandling is going unpunished. Police are continuing to arrest belligerent beggars for aggressive panhandling, a form of disorderly conduct that has been illegal for decades.
The more recent panhandling ban grants police the authority to issue a warning or a citation to somebody who is caught panhandling in downtown's "tourist triangle"; at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center; and within 15 feet of an ATM, a bus stop, or parking lot pay box. Upon a second violation, the officer is supposed to issue a citation rather than a warning. A third violation can bring a jail sentence of up to 30 days and a fine of up to $1,000.
Deputy City Attorney Stacey Abrams says that while police are supposed to issue citations the second time around, keeping track of an alleged panhandler's actions might be tricky. That's because many people caught panhandling are homeless, and most homeless don't carry ID.
That's not the only complication. There's also the fact that most homeless people don't have an address and therefore can't receive notices to appear in court. Serving arrest warrants to homeless violators who fail to attend a court date also poses difficulties.
"If a person is homeless and you give them a citation, how do you make sure that they come to court?" Boyce asks.
There is one obvious benefit to issuing only warnings to violators of the panhandling ban: It has staved off a legal challenge from the ACLU.
Georgia ACLU legal director Gerry Weber says his group has been interviewing homeless people for months, preparing for a possible lawsuit.
"If we see that the officers are giving move-along orders to people with great frequency -- if it is used to disrupt people's daily lives -- we might proceed with a lawsuit in that event," Weber says.
Yet Abrams says the threat of legal action hasn't deterred the city from issuing citations.
"Certainly, there is a legal challenge possible," Abrams says. "We have been prepared for it since the day the legislation was introduced."