Omnivore - City offers alternative to handouts after police impersonate tourists and bust panhandlers

Monday night, I dined at Zocalo on 10th Street. I parked a couple of blocks away and, on my way to the restaurant, I was hit up by four panhandlers — and three on the way back to my car. This was the same day a friend told me he recently outran a couple of would-be muggers on Edgewood Ave.

The tanking economy seems to have increased the incidence of this annoyance. Atlanta now reminds me of San Francisco during the '90s. I commuted there every month for a few years for training in my other occupation, and often stayed in a hotel on the edge of the Tenderloin district. The panhandling was so bad that at night, the hotel staff would lock the doors and sit their chairs in front of the windows, watching the parade of homeless people as if they were exotic aquarium fish.

Today, Wednesday, Mayor Shirley Franklin (who has already purged the city of sin) announced a new effort to discourage illegal panhandling. The Atlanta Business Chronicle reports:

The plan, known as Give Change That Makes Sense, includes five “donation meters” that will be placed downtown to allow people to give to charities that serve the homeless. The locations include City Hall, the Fulton County Courthouse, the downtown Hilton, Georgia World Congress Center and the Zone 5 police station.

The plan also calls for ramped up law enforcement efforts and a public information campaign to raise awareness about aggressive panhandlers and the services available for those in need.

Aggressive panhandlers often aren’t homeless, Franklin said, and prey on a person’s good intentions to help or a desire to end harassment. But giving in to panhandlers, she said, is “counter-productive” and does nothing to help those with genuine needs.

I find this a bit strange. I can't quite imagine telling the cracked-out woman who asked me for a dollar Monday night that I had already put $1.50 in a downtown donation meter, so, please, call United Way and leave me alone. I suppose the argument is that if we stop enabling panhandlers by refusing to give them money, they will all enroll in 12-step programs and get high-paying hotel and restaurant jobs.

Police and "ambassadors" working for the hospitality industry will also be used to discourage panhandling. I found this in the Business Chronicle's story interesting:

Last month, Atlanta Police officers, dressed as conventioneers and tourists, launched undercover stings to nab panhandlers. Police Chief Richard Pennington said the blitz netted approximately 50 arrests, while an additional 50 would-be panhandlers were intercepted before they could harass downtown visitors. Pennington said none of those arrested during the sting were repeat offenders.

An August 2005 law banned verbal requests for money in certain locations downtown. The city has had some difficulty prosecuting panhandlers because of a lack of witnesses. Victims often are visitors to the city and cannot be counted on to testify at trial. Using undercover officers allows for ready-made witnesses, police have said.

The article was not accompanied by pictures of undercover police in their tourist and conventioneer costumes, but I managed to get hold of the picture of two of Atlanta's finest shown above.

To learn how to make eye contact with a panhandler while just saying no, visit the new program's website, www.stoppanhandlingatlanta.com.

For more on this latest crackdown, check out the Fresh Loaf post on it.

(Photo: Duane Hanson, Tourists, 1970, from www.westga.edu/.../hansontourists.html)

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