Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Council prohibits 'aggressive' panhandling

Courts have voided similar laws elsewhere By JENNIFER BROOKS • Staff Writer Tennessean • January 16, 2008 The Metro Council outlawed "aggressive" panhandling in Nashville on Tuesday night after calling for a citywide task force to look for a solution to the problem of homelessness that's better than simply rounding up anyone caught begging for money in the wrong place or at the wrong time downtown. "What we will be doing is criminalizing people who are poor," said Jerry Maynard, councilman at large. "For some of them, this is their last means by which they can feed their family, or achieve any type subsistence by which they can live." The law, which takes effect immediately, bans all panhandling after dark or near automated teller machines, sidewalk cafes, business entrances, bus stops or schools. It also makes it a crime to approach someone "aggressively" to ask for money, which the bill defines as everything from making threatening statements to touching people, blocking their path or refusing to take "no" for an answer. Councilman Erik Cole proposed a task force that would bring together advocates for the homeless, representatives of downtown businesses, downtown residents and the tourism industry. "My concern is that this is one piece of a puzzle," Cole said. "We really need to get all the players around the table in the next couple of months." Maynard suggested including the police and court system, predicting they could be "bombarded" by arrests once the law goes into effect. Similar bills have passed in other large American cities, although opponents point out that several of the anti-panhandling ordinances have been struck down by courts as violations of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. In those cases, the courts said asking for money is a form of expression protected by the U.S. Constitution. Man claims 'loophole' Charles Andrews, a homeless man who said he travels from city to city, agrees that there is a problem with panhandling if it involves touching people or using foul language near small children. Sitting by a downtown cafe near Sommet Center in freezing temperatures, he gestured to a sign he was holding that said "smile you're beautiful." "I kind of have a loophole. I'm not asking for anything. They don't have to give me anything, not even a smile." He said he had been in other cities that had laws aimed at the homeless. In Santa Cruz, N.M., "I hated it there" because the police use a loitering law to harass the homeless, he said. Under the new Metro law, Andrews could have been cited for panhandling after dark and near a sidewalk cafe. New law reflects trend In 2006, the National Coalition for the Homeless released a survey of 224 American cities and found a growing trend toward criminalizing behaviors usually associated with the homeless. • 45 percent had passed laws to ban aggressive panhandling. • 43 percent prohibited begging in particular public places. • 21 percent had citywide bans on panhandling. The coalition estimated that the number of aggressive panhandling ordinances had increased 18 percent since its previous survey in 2002. Among the cities with bans similar to the proposed Nashville ordinance is Atlanta, which in 2005 banned panhandling anywhere in its so-called "tourist triangle" as well as within 15 feet of an automated teller machine, bus stop, pay phone, public toilet or train station.

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