Monday, January 14, 2008

Aggressive panhandling bill up for council vote Tuesday

By MICHAEL CASS and JENNIFER BROOKS Staff Writers(Tennessean) The Metro Council is set to make a final vote Tuesday night to outlaw “aggressive” panhandling in Nashville. The sweeping legislation would put limits on anyone asking for a handout in the streets, alleys and public places of the city, with the exception of street musicians. For supporters, the legislation is a reasonable response to a growing number of uncomfortable, and occasionally intimidating, encounters between downtown residents and visitors and pushy panhandlers. But opponents say the law would intimidate an already vulnerable population of homeless people, without addressing the reasons they are out begging for money on the street in the first place. The bill has gone through two readings before the council and is likely to win approval Tuesday night. It would ban all panhandling after dark, or near automated teller machines, sidewalk cafés, business entrances, bus stops or schools. It would also make it a crime to approach someone “aggressively” to ask for money, which the bill defines as everything from making threatening statements to touching them, blocking their path or refusing to take “no” for an answer. Ben Bahil, who lives and works downtown, said he supports the bill because it would crack down on “con artists,” many of whom he believes aren’t homeless. “They’re the ones who want more than 25 cents,” said Bahil, a member of the Urban Residents Association. “There’s a certain amount of that that you need to expect, living in an urban area. But Nashville is way out of proportion with what you would expect.” But Metro Councilman Jerry Maynard said he plans to vote against the panhandling bill because existing laws already prohibit threatening behavior and assault. He also said it would be “ludicrous” to fine people who are begging for money or to put them in already overcrowded jails. “The solution is to look at a comprehensive plan to deal with homelessness,” Maynard said. “When people are frustrated, they pass legislation that doesn’t do anything long-term but gives some short-term relief.” Maynard, an attorney and minister who represents the entire county on the council, also said he couldn’t support the legislation as a Christian. But the bill’s leading sponsor, Councilman Walter Hunt, insists that cracking down on unacceptable behavior does not mean the city lacks compassion, pointing to the $2.3 million the city has pledged to build 200 new housing units for the homeless this year. “We’re only concerned with the people who are out there harassing people, threatening people, panhandling people after dark,” he said. “A lot of the people doing that aren’t even homeless people. They’re professional beggars.” Other cities have passed similar aggressive panhandling bills, only to see them struck down by the courts. Matt Leber, spokesman for Nashville’s Homeless Power Project, predicted a similar fate for this law. “We have a problem with spending millions of dollars to incarcerate people for misdemeanors,” he said. “We should be channeling that money into outreach and housing and treatment programs.”

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