Keep those handouts: Panhandling is made a crime in more cities

Beijing took some heat in the press for sweeping its streets of the homeless before the Olympic circus came to town, but China's government isn't the only one trying to banish the disadvantaged from places where visitors tread.

According to the main Atlanta newspaper, the Journal-Constitution, cops have been trawling the streets this month dressed as tourists, hoping to catch panhandlers in the act of rustling up money. As of last week, 44 beggars have been arrested.

One of the police commanders in town explains that the frequency and intimidating style of local begging has gotten so bad that it's annoying tourists and scaring them away. And because most tourists who feel accosted by beggars don't return to town to testify, the city had to resort to using officers posing as tourists so that there would be someone around to tell it to the judge. The decoys are even rigged with hidden cameras.

Atlanta, which passed an ordinance three years ago that banned verbal panhandling in a restricted downtown area near the Georgia Aquarium, is far from the only city to place limits on begging. In the Peachtree City, beggars can usually get by silently holding a sign that asks for cash. But ask "aggressively" -- the interpretation, like the one for obscenity, is fluid -- and it's a crime.
It's not just Atlanta. Several other American cities are getting creative in figuring out ways to curb begging without running afoul of the courts. Many areas of concern have a common thread: tourism.

In 2006, Las Vegas tried outlawing the feeding of homeless people in city parks. That rule died in the U.S. District Court, but not after an uproar from civil libertarians. Around the same time, Orlando tried to ban the feeding the disadvantaged in its quickly gentrifying downtown district. Groups of up to 24 are permissible, but once a Good Samaritan's outreach tallies 25 or more, it's a crime. The federal courts are deciding the outcome of that one as you read this.

I will confess that I, probably like you, sometimes get a little uncomfortable when a "freelance doorman" (as I call them) loiters by the door of the bank where my ATM is located. (In 2003, San Francisco voters approved Proposition M, which outlaws just such a thing.) But I always have assumed it was their right to be there as long as they were on property and they aren't badgering anyone. Turns out that in some cities, it isn't.

Other tourist-friendly cities that have recently implemented such laws include Sarasota, Florida, about two hours southwest of Orlando (its bans were ruled constitutional) as well as Santa Monica, California, which forbids "even the giving of a cookie to a member of the public without a city permit," according to a rap sheet written by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Some of the leaders backing these laws say that they're only trying to steer the homeless to established assistance channels. But some independent advocates say the rules are infringements on civil rights. In July, after Venice, Italy, banned begging, the Vatican protested by saying begging is "a human right."

There are already rules on the book that penalize physical attacks, harassment, public urination, petty theft, and other "quality of life" crimes most associated (fairly or unfairly) with the needy. Since we've got those, are further rules necessary, and is it fair to only apply them in some places but not others?

Either way, until higher courts settle the matter, if you give money or a sandwich to a beggar, you could be opening to door to criminal charges, either for you or for the recipient of your charity. Right now, the debate is about the rights of the beggars. But the question no one seems to be asking is about the rights of the Good Samaritans and whether each of us has the right to decide to whom to give our change. Or our cookies.

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