published Sunday, August 18th, 2013

Downtown Chattanooga a haven for panhandlers

Business owners and visitors in downtown Chattanooga say the city's ordinance against panhandling hasn't stemmed the tide of people asking for money on the streets.
Business owners and visitors in downtown Chattanooga say the city's ordinance against panhandling hasn't stemmed the tide of people asking for money on the streets.
Photo by Dan Henry.

PULL-OUT PANHANDLING INFO

  • College students are most likely to give to a panhandler.

  • Couples are most likely to be targeted by panhandlers, as well as lone women.

  • Tourists are often targeted because they are "psychologically prepared" to spend money.

  • Panhandlers usually make $20 to $50 per day, but can make up to $300 when big events are in town.

  • Repeat donors can account for approximately 50 percent of panhandlers' income.

Source: United States Dept. of Justice report on panhandling

BEGGING BAN

Panhandling is specifically forbidden at:

  • Walnut Street Bridge

  • Miller Park and Plaza

  • Tennessee Aquarium block

  • Park at Ross's Landing

  • Tennessee Riverpark

  • Creative Discovery Museum and IMAX Theater blocks

  • Chattanooga African-American museum block

  • Jack's Alley (2007 addendum)

  • Main Street, between Broad Street and Central Avenue (2007 addendum)

  • Also included: rights-of-way, sidewalks, prohibited zones, bus stops, sidewalk cafes, areas within 25 feet of ATMs/banks, public and private schools, and anywhere after sunset or before sunrise.

Source: 2002 City of Chattanooga Panhandling Ordinance (Section 25-45)

It's the perfect storm of charity and guilt.

More than 10 years after Chattanooga passed an ordinance against panhandling, residents and tourists alike say the problem hasn't gone away.

Depending on who is talking, the practice downtown has either remained constant or is worse now than ever.

All Books Inc. owner Polly Henry said panhandlers plague her customers and every store and restaurant owner in the vicinity of Fourth and Broad streets, especially on weekends. They hound customers in the alleys leading to and from businesses and along the sidewalks, and will even solicit people inside stores.

"They beg for everything and to everybody," said Henry.

And police say panhandling is increasingly associated with concerns about safety.

Panhandlers hit the streets for money during peak business hours in the mid-evening dinner rush and late at night for the bar scene. After the sun goes down, the game changes altogether.

Approaching someone at a vulnerable moment, say, after dark as a person walks alone or a when shop owner locks up for the night, can feel far more threatening than the simple request offered on the sidewalk when there are plenty of other people around.

"It becomes an encounter when someone in a dark parking lot approaches you and asks for five bucks," said Chattanooga Police Department Capt. Eric Tucker. Asking for a specific amount -- like 75 cents or $5.25 -- is a strategy many panhandlers use to pressure their targets into giving.

To address the problem, police think a more comprehensive approach may be needed. They are considering talking to the state about establishing a Tennessee-wide law for matters of privacy and security.

The city ordinance approved in 2002 made it illegal to beg for money near downtown's destination areas, such as the Tennessee Aquarium plaza and the Creative Discovery Museum. But people from baristas to hotel managers say the nuisance hasn't abated.

"People don't want to be heavyhanded, but there comes a point in time where you have business owners who have invested a whole lot into their business and it becomes disruptive," Tucker said.

City law forbids "panhandling" in marked areas, but the act is more or less forbidden throughout the Scenic City.

Everywhere else, police consider it "aggravated trespassing." Officers can cite panhandlers to City Court but many neither show up for court nor pay the $50 fine.

"I simply think they don't care," Tucker said. "It's not just a Chattanooga problem, it's just a society problem. But you have to take into account it can kill your business."

Hector Azor, manager of Jimmy John's on Market Street, said his shop suffers the most when it rains and panhandlers at the adjacent Miller Park move under his shop's brick overhang. While they stay dry on his property, they ask his customers for food, money and cigarettes.

"I try to stress it to customers that we don't like it, either," he said. "It scares some of our customers away. People have walked around the entire building to avoid them out front."

Businesses like Greyfriars Coffee & Tea, another panhandling hotspot near Fourth and Broad streets, learned to coexist with panhandlers for months at a time. They dealt with a problem visitor named Tim who hung around every day and asked customers to buy him coffee.

"Everybody knew his name. He looked like a normal, handsome young guy," barista Marinda Cauley said. "So he got a lot of women to buy him coffee. We let it go for awhile, but we finally had to boot him."

Greyfriars also has dealt with panhandlers taking the baristas' tip jars and stealing employees' bags. The problems created by Tim and other panhandlers illustrate the blurred crossroads between people who need financial help and those who take advantage of strangers.

Karen McMahon, who spearheaded the city's "Art of Change" program to combat panhandling in 2007, said there is a distinct difference between those who ask for money and those who really need it.

"Generally, panhandlers are not homeless people," she said. "The stories they create and tell are often not true."

"The Art of Change" provided assistance for people in financial need. The campaign collected donations, encouraging people to deposit their change in unused parking meters rather than giving handouts. All proceeds went to the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, where people in need could apply for $100 of immediate funding, and raised about $1,250 every month.

The program no longer exists. Neither the mayor's office nor the United Way of Greater Chattanooga could be reached for comment as to when the program was phased out.

"After the initial burst, where people paid attention and the meters had a lot of money put into them, it loses its effectiveness and gets stale," McMahon said. "It's not being used anymore, but the merchants were very pleased."

The meters, decorated and sponsored by downtown businesses, gave patrons a guilt-free way to help the less fortunate.

"People didn't have to feel guilty not giving their money to panhandlers," she said. "The people who make their living panhandling, so to speak, didn't like it. They vandalized the meters."

Tucker, who strongly favored the meters, said he tells people to "help those who are in the professional business of helping," as giving to panhandlers encourages them to keep asking.

But it doesn't take a public figure or a police captain to see firsthand the effects of panhandling. Both tourists and regular downtown visitors alike deal with the begging patterns.

"Every evening, there's one panhandler sitting on this end of the Market Street bridge," said a man who wanted to be known only as Steve. "I know he's going to be there, so I always try to avoid him. I know he's going to ask me for money. I don't want to look at him and have him see me looking like I feel sorry for him."

In addition to Steve's discomfort with panhandlers, he said his personal finances make him less likely to donate. After working through eight years of pharmacy school, he has spent two of his last five years without a job.

"I feel sorry for people that are having to seek a handout," he said. "But how close am I to sitting out here and taking my banjo to play for people for a cup of coffee, too?"

The issue of panhandling remains a tricky one to address, as the line between donation and enabling continues to blur. Citizens are left to wonder if giving to complete strangers is beneficial.

"Everybody's gotta survive in this world," Steve said. "I can't fault them for trying."

Staff writer Joy Lukachick contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6592.

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