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Panhandling Ban Protested Again, One Year Later, in Atlanta

(APN) ATLANTA – “We pray for those in this building who would be enemies of the poor,” Jim Beaty, 70, activist, exclaimed Tuesday morning at a City Hall protest, on the one year anniversary of the panhandling ordinance in Atlanta.

Homeless men and woman and human rights advocates rallied on the steps of City Hall and then proceeded to deliver letters to the Mayor and City Council Members.

The Mayor’s Office did not send a representative to greet the protesters; however, clerks joined hands with them in a prayer. In the Council Office, Councilman CT Martin spoke and other Members sent representatives, including Hall, Maddox, Mitchell, Muller, and Sheperd.

“I appreciate you. If not you, I don’t know who would do it [advocate for the poor]. Working together, maybe we can bring some sensibility to this issue. We have a serious class issue in this city,” Councilman Martin said.

“Actually they are too afraid to enforce it. Cause they know, as I’ve told them, it’s not constitutional on its face or its merit. At least we can have public toilets. I’m going to see what should be done about that,” Martin said.

One of the issues brought up by activists is the fact that the homeless have no restrooms to use due to the lack of public restrooms. Many homeless people are arrested for urinating in public as a result.

With the one year anniversary of the ban on panhandling in Atlanta, there have been no arrests for panhandling, advocates said.

The arrests have instead been for another law, DC-6, “disorderly conduct in a known drug area.” However, the application of DC-6 appears to be selective, advocates say.

The American Civil Liberties Union is eagerly waiting for the first arrest on the panhandling ban so they can sue the City, but the City has not arrested anyone for panhandling, advocates say, because the law is “unenforceable.”

The law assumes there will be outreach workers who are supposed to provide referrals to homeless services for homeless people who are cited for panhandling on their first and second “offenses.” However, the City expected social service agencies to provide these workers and they simply don’t have the resources to respond to calls of a sighting of a panhandler.

The Task Force for the Homeless and the Open Door Community are partnering in what is being called “the Movement to Redeem the Soul of Atlanta.”

“We started last year. We have hearts for justice. We have hearts for the poor. We formed a movement. We see it as a spiritual issue in Atlanta, where housing is being torn down, where we’re choosing to give welfare to large corporations but not people,” Rev. Lauren Cogswell, 32, Pastor of the Open Door Community, told Atlanta Progressive News.

“Panhandling is the issue that brought us together. I believe justice is stronger than evil. The City Council will come to see they made a great mistake. The ordinance is illegal. It is unconstitutional because it hinders free speech,” Cogswell said.

Cogswell believes the City got what it wanted anyway, which was to scare the homeless away as much as possible, even though the law isn’t enforceable or being enforced.

“This is to create the Tourist Triangle, which is Atlanta’s new segregation. To make the rich business folks to feel comfortable in Downtown Atlanta and get rid of the poor,” Cogswell said.

Meanwhile, the City’s solution–the Gateway Center–is not doing what it was promised to do, Cogswell said. “You can’t walk in and get help. You can’t walk in and get food. The beds are program beds,” she said.

One homeless man, Cedric Smith, 43, spoke with Atlanta Progressive News about his experience being arrested for DC-6.

On February 22, 2006, he says, “I was standing on Walnut Street talking to my friend. A white van pulled up. They told me, put my hands in the air. They picked me up, slammed me on the pavement–it had been raining–in mud and water. Kicked me, handcuffed me, and put me in the van. Took me in the precinct on Fair Street. They said I was standing in a drug area. There was no one out there. They asked me where I stay. I told them, in a shelter.”

Cedric says he believes he was arrested for being homeless.

“I guess because of the way I was dressed,” he told APN.

“I was upset. But I had no money to get no lawyer. I went to court and they gave me 30 days, but I served 16 days,” he says.

But here’s the thing. “I pleaded guilty.”

But why would a homeless man plead guilty to something he didn’t do? To get out sooner, given the City’s perverse incentive system.

“They said they’re still going to give me 30 days. If I pleaded not guilty, I would wait 30 days before going back to court.” In other words, he was told if he pleaded guilty he would get out for time already served, but if he pleaded not guilty he would have to stay behind bars until his hearing.

This troubling testimony also calls into question the validity of the City’s arrests rates of DC-6 as measures of what the defendants actually see as their guilt or innocence; rates, therefore, might be inflated, if this is true.

“The time is always right for justice. This is spiritual warfare. The fight is good over evil,” State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas said. “They’re hoping you’ll just ignore your rights. But that time is over. Any time you would put a bill in place that would disenfranchise people, a crime against the poor, what kind of people are you?”

“Every day we see progressive leaders taken out of politics. You need to become the leaders,” Rep. Thomas said. “They say Cynthia McKinney speaks too much, but we speak truth to power too.”

“Today we’re here not to ask politely, but to demand the rights we were born with [including] the right to pee with dignity. We’re here to take these demands to City Council. This is our building. This is our space. We own it. Let’s go in and claim justice!” Anita Beaty, 64, Executive Director of the Task Force for the Homeless, said.

“A few weeks ago, the City acquired the King papers, and I appreciate it. But at the same time, I’ve read some of those papers. I’m not so concerned about the papers. I’m concerned about the principles,” State Sen. Vincent Fort said.

“They need to READ those papers! We should not put down the poor, but lift them up!” Sen. Fort said.

Troy Harris, 39, is a homeless man who is now helping run the Task Force for the Homeless Shelter. The law “is based on a segment of society who would prefer people not to ask them for money. They have the right to say no. But they want to push their preference on you,” Harris said.

Earlier this year, the National Coalition for the Homeless named Atlanta one of the meanest cities to the homeless, in their annual report. NCH’s Executive Director Michael Stoops told APN at the time that Atlanta’s Mayor was setting a poor example for mayors of other US cities.

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor of Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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