By Matthew Cardinale, Editor, Atlanta Progressive News (January 19, 2006)
(APN) ATLANTA--"There is a conspiracy among mayors since they hear the Mayor of Atlanta has outlawed panhandling," Michael Stoops, Executive Director of the National Coalition of the Homeless (NCH), said in a press conference, January 11, 2006.
"The Atlanta ordinance says this is how Atlanta is solving Atlanta’s homeless problem. You’re not aloud to say anything. You’re not allowed to ask what time it is; you’re not allowed to ask for directions. You’re not allowed to ask for food. We don’t consider that to be a model ordinance," Stoops said in response to a press question from Atlanta Progressive News.
"We consider Shirley Franklin to be a anti-homeless mayor," he asserted. Franklin is widely seen, though, as a progressive mayor.
The conference was held in DC; Atlanta Progressive News participated by phone.
NCH has partnered again with the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) on their annual "criminalization of the homeless report." NCH published the report independently in recent years, and has again begun collaborating with NLCHP on the report as it had initially started out doing in 1999.
The report finds that homelessness is increasing, as is criminalization of homeless people, seeing as how cities nationwide are passing more and more anti-homeless ordinances.
"In the 67 cities surveyed in this report and in the 2002 [co-authored] report, there are currently more laws used to target homeless persons, including a 12% increase in laws prohibiting begging in certain public places and a 14% increase in laws prohibiting sitting or lying in certain public spaces," the report, "A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of the Homeless in U.S. Cities," says.
Mayor Franklin’s press office referred APN’s questions to a "legal expert," who did not return our calls prior to deadline.
"Atlanta is taking great strides to end chronic homelessness in Atlanta," City of Atlanta spokesperson, Catherine Woodling, told Atlanta Progressive News, however. "Chronic homelessness"–a Bush administration coinage–refers to those who are homeless due to mental illness, and ignores the causes of periodic homelessness such low wages and affordable housing.
Woodling was pleased to hear Atlanta had fallen from number 2 to the number 4 spot on the Meanest Cities list.
"We’ve been outdone," Anita Beaty, Director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force For the Homeless, told Atlanta Progressive News.
In other words, the problem has gotten worse in Atlanta, while it’s gotten even more worse in other cities, Beaty says.
Criminalization is not a cost-effective way of dealing with homelessness, Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of NLCHP, said. Jail costs 2-3 more times than housing for a homeless person, she said.
The City of Atlanta’s Cathy Woodling pointed to a ten-year blueprint with the United Way to end homelessness in Atlanta. Such plans were recently developed in many cities. Woodling also pointed to a new shelter, the 24/7 Gateway Shelter, which was a main project of the blueprint, she said.
However, there has been a net loss of beds for homeless people in Atlanta in the last year, spurred by the loss of 125 emergency beds for homeless women and children which were closed by Mayor Franklin in 2005, the report finds.
"The reason this all [the panhandling ban] went into affect is, there were scammers hanging out in the tourist triangle, getting money from tourists, and hurting tourism," Woodling said.
"Mayor Franklin’s father was homeless," Woodling added. "And she tells the story, she stepped over him on the way to school. But he was one of the success stories," Woodling said.
"Amid waves of public protest and testimony opposing the Atlanta City Council’s proposed comprehensive ban on panhandling, the city and mayor passed a bill in August 2005," the report says.
"The ban made panhandling illegal within the "tourist triangle" and anywhere after dark. The ordinance also prohibits panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM, bus stop, taxi stand, pay phone, public toilet, or train station anywhere in the city. Many opponents believe the ban outlaws panhandling virtually everywhere, rendering it unconstitutional. The new ordinance also states that anyone who asks for help, both monetary and non-monetary, can be detained until an outreach worker either evaluates the detainee or refers him/her to social services," the report says.
Homeless persons are only arrested after being warned, detained, and brought to the Gateway on two previous instances, Woodling told Atlanta Progressive News.
"There is no on-demand response team, nor should there need to be," Anita Beaty said, however, meaning that there is selective implementation of the law.
"There are outreach people, from mental health workers to our outreach team. There are outreach workers there all the time, but not to respond to the Police Department to respond to someone who said I need a quarter for a MARTA token to go to work," Beaty advised.
"The problem of criminalizing homelessness has been around for a long, long time. It has been increasing since the 1980's. It’s a form of economic profiling. If you look like you’re homeless in downtown America, you’ll be arrested," Michael Stoops said.
"It hurts everyone, worst of all homeless people. Criminalizing homelessness is a waste of time and resources," Stoops said.
"Rather than arresting and jailing homeless people for violation, let’s find out why they’re homeless in the first place. There’s a lack of day shelters, and affordable housing," Stoops said.
"We dedicated this report in the name of Rosa Parks," Stoops continued. "Criminalization of the homeless is the civil rights issue of this decade. When we hear of our homeless brothers and sisters, perhaps we should sit down next to them and see if we’ll get arrested."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) chose not to issue an original story on the report, instead relying on an Associated Press report which talked mostly about Sarasota, Florida, the meanest city on this year’s list. The homeless coalitions tell APN that the AJC called them asking for the meanest cities list prior to the January 11th conference call. The AJC ran the AP story, but inserted a new title relating directly to Atlanta’s "drop" to fourth-meanest-city on the list.
"We have one newspaper in this town and this newspaper and some of the money downtown are behind the mayor. It’s absolutely shameless publicity for her. No one really examines her policies," Anita Beaty told Atlanta Progressive News.
"The report is a little soft I think, even though I was part of the production of it. I don’t know how we can make it clearer to the public that people are being harassed and arrested and legislated against so that their normal or their necessary activities and bodily functions are illegal," Beaty exclaimed.
"I think the panhandling ban is the most recent in a series of thoughtless, mean, and regressive legislation that Atlanta’s resorted to, to keep homeless people excluded from housing, from life in Atlanta, from participating as citizens, as the citizens that they are," Beaty said.