A proposed ordinance to bar panhandlers from accosting people in Atlanta’s tourist section has run headlong into the politics of race in this city of the New South that likes to portray itself as having moved beyond black and white.
Hoping to boost convention business and tidy up downtown, the City Council is considering a measure to prevent visitors from being hit up for money by homeless people around Olympic Centennial park, CNN Center and some of the South’s finest restaurants.
But most of the panhandlers are black. And earlier this week, the council sent the proposal back to committee after activists likened the ban to the “Negro removal” policy that they say white downtown business elites pursued in the 1950s.
“This is a mean-spirited continuation of what they call the ‘sanitation’ of Peachtree Street,” said Joe Beasley, a 68-year-old Atlanta native who heads the regional office of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. “The white folks, their position was that black people were bad for commerce, and if you were black, you just didn’t go on Peachtree Street unless you were cleaning up or something.”
Downtown business owners back the ordinance, complaining that some streets and parks are so overrun with beggars that customers won’t visit.
“My own wife doesn’t come down here,” said Alex Nader, owner of European Kitchen Express, which overlooks Peachtree Street and a park. “We’ve had panhandlers come inside and actually solicit money from people who are eating.”
He added: “If we call the police, basically they don’t do much. They tell them to leave the area, and as soon as the police are gone, they come back. It is very bad for business.”
Kenneth Strozier, a 46-year-old panhandler sitting in the park across from Nader’s restaurant, said: “I understand people don’t want to be bothered, but what are we going to do? We got no affordable housing, for one thing. This new law or whatever isn’t going to change it.”
Under the ordinance, beggars could still sit on sidewalks with signs asking for money, but they could not approach people for money downtown. In other parts of the city, panhandling would still be allowed, except within 15 feet of ATMs, bus and train stations and public toilets.