Downtown panhandling solutions run the gamut for Chattanooga

photo John Rawlston poses for a photo-illustration on panhandling outside of the Chattanooga Times Free Press building on Thursday.

BEGGING BANIn Chattanooga, panhandling is specifically forbidden at:Walnut Street BridgeMiller Park and PlazaTennessee Aquarium blockPark at Ross's LandingTennessee RiverparkCreative Discovery Museum and IMAX Theater blocksChattanooga African-American museum blockJack'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)

While panhandling is a daily problem for Chattanooga's downtown merchants, workers and visitors, other cities have found ways to deal with the issue.

• Savannah, Ga., has been acclaimed for its zero-tolerance approach to panhandling. Citizens and tourists are asked to call 911 if they are asked for money, and state-issued signs outside buildings serve notice that panhandling is illegal.

• Atlanta treats its panhandlers with tough love. Atlanta banned hassling strangers for money in 2012, and punishment is harsh. Repeat offender? That's 30 days in jail. Three times? 90 days.

• Athens, Ga., revamped four parking meters into donation receptacles for its homeless in 2003, and inspired Chattanooga to create its own "Art of Change" program in 2009. However, the Scenic City's program has since been discontinued.

Last year, Athens's four parking meters brought in $200 to benefit the Northeast Georgia Homeless Coalition. The meters cost $55 each at startup, and have brought in steady donations for a full decade.

Chattanooga had a similar parking meter campaign from 2008 to 2011 during Mayor Ron Littlefield's administration. In its prime, the 25-meter program regularly raised $1,250 each month for the United Way of Greater Chattanooga. Local businesses could "sponsor" the meters with a $10,000 donation. The meters were created to draw money away from panhandlers and provide grants to agencies serving the homeless in Chattanooga, according to United Way of Greater Chattanooga CEO Eva Dillard.

"After the initial funds were distributed, collections fell off," Lacie Stone, communications director for Mayor Andy Berke, wrote in an email. "The Littlefield administration had stated that it was never intended to be an ongoing program."

Some people say the best way to deal with the problem is to simply not give to panhandlers.

Savannah's panhandling issue became a public topic in the early 1990s when a police survey linked panhandling to concerns about public safety. Savannah also distributes pamphlets to tourists in hopes they will keep their money in their own pockets.

In Chattanooga, a local deacon wrote a pamphlet in 2006 explaining the psychology of panhandlers, and that he feels it's OK not to give them money.

"Try not to let your generosity perpetuate someone else's poverty," said Gene Johnson, who represents New City Fellowship. "The only reason why you see people standing on the side of the road downtown is because it works. Would you blame them?"

Johnson has worked with New City since 1999, three years before Chattanooga's first panhandling legislation took effect. He says most of the city's panhandlers are the same few people telling rehearsed stories, and they will frequent the downtown strip of Market and Broad streets every day.

Between tales of broken-down cars and hotel bills, he says he's heard it all.

"Normal people feel awkward about asking strangers for a favor," he said. "So if someone can come up to you with a colorful story, it's obvious they've done it before."

The right to tell panhandlers "no" comes at a moral crossroads -- if not with money, how should Chattanooga assist those in need?

Johnson has a variety of suggestions, including asking if the panhandler would like to be involved with your church's programs.

Perhaps the simplest is to refer the panhandler to the nearest soup kitchen, charity resource or ministry and to even carry a business card or information about such places.

"Churches can do things that governments can't do," Johnson said. "They can always use volunteers, and they don't have the red tape."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at [email protected] or 423-757-6592.