Of course it's a problem. When you come out of a honky-tonk on Lower Broad, sweaty and smelling of cheap beer and cigarettes, the last thing you want is to get hassled by a homeless guy who reeks of cheap beer and cigarettes. Or a sober one who smells fine, for that matter. You spent too much money at the bar, and moreover, you worked for that money in your pocket, so why can't he?
At least that's the prevailing attitude toward homeless people, and it's a pretty natural way to feel, given the social and economic barriers that separate Nashville's middle and leisure classes from its drifters. Panhandlers, in particular, make people uncomfortable. They force us to confront others in undignified despair, people literally begging us for change we know we can spare. For a brief instantthat second before we shake our heads, quicken our step and mutter "sorry" without making eye contactwe are indicted, our plenty against another's lack. Our repulsion at this other person, and at our own distaste for him, makes us feel awkward, embarrassed, even ashamed. So naturally, we don't want panhandlers around.
Neither do downtown business owners. After all, folks aren't inclined to spend money at your store if they have to navigate the guilt gauntlet to get there. That's why this summer the Nashville Downtown Partnership has made banning panhandlers in specific urban locations a top priority. The partnership, a "nonprofit management organization," according to its Web site, wants "to make downtown Nashville the compelling urban center in the Southeast in which to live, work, play and invest."
To that end, it is pushing a pair of Metro ordinances that would try to address perceived problems in the urban core. The first bill, which has been reviewed by Metro attorneys and is ready to be filed in the council, would prohibit panhandling in any location (including sidewalks and rights-of-way) inside the "prohibited zones": the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, Bicentennial Park, Riverfront Park, Church Street Park, Hall of Fame Park, Public Plaza, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Arcade entrances, TPAC, Frist Center, Nashville Convention Center, Gaylord Entertainment Center, Nashville Public Library and "The District," which includes the touristy parts of Second Avenue as well as Lower Broad and Printers Alley. It would also ban panhandling after dark, or bumming at bus stops, sidewalk cafes, schools and ATMs. Finally, it would outlaw "aggressive panhandling," which consists of solicitations accompanied by threats, intimidation or a refusal to desist.
The good news for panhandlers is that the Nashville Downtown Partnership's offices aren't in the prohibited zone. The bad news is that pretty much everywhere else is.
As with any government policy or business contract, the fun's in the details. For example, the ordinance defines panhandling as "any solicitation made in person requesting an immediate donation of money or other thing of value for oneself or another person or entity." If this law hits the books, Salvation Army bell-ringers can hit the road. Moreover, "purchase of an item for an amount far exceeding its value" would be outlawed, crippling The Tennessean's ability to sell papers downtown.
Seriously, however, downtown merchants are feeling besieged, and if we can't blame the Bush administration or Gaylord for a lack of tourist traffic, maybe it's the panhandlers' fault. "There's a very large focus in Nashville on visitors and tourism," says Tom Turner of the Downtown Partnership. "Presenting a downtown that's clean and safe goes a long way in continuing that." Additionally, he says, with a new focus on urban housing optionsthe Gulch revitalization, the Viridian high-rise project and an abundance of lofts sprouting around townpedestrian issues come to the forefront.
The second bill that the Downtown Partnership is supporting is based on an Oregon law that prescribes punishments for public park violations. Basically, if you break a law in a park, you get banned from it for a period of time. This bill, designed to deal with the large number of homeless people who congregate in parks, is in earlier stages. Nonetheless, one attorney who has reviewed it has serious questions about its constitutionality. The same goes for the restriction of free speech caused by a sweeping panhandling ban.
Of course, this isn't the first time issues of law enforcement and homelessness have been discussed in Nashville. About 10 years ago, according to one person involved with the issue in the early 1990s, downtown merchants raised similar concerns with the mayor's office and the Metro Council. Just like the current situation, they drafted legislation. But what happened back in the day was pretty novel: homeless advocates, law enforcement, representatives of then-Mayor Bredesen's office, council members and even some homeless folks all came together to discuss the situation. Eventually, the ad hoc bunch concluded that Nashville didn't need any more laws on the books to address panhandling, or aggressive panhandling. The participant who spoke to the Scene described it as "a very positive experience."
Wouldn't you know it? There's a similar ad hoc group that's been meeting this very summer, and it happens that they're dealing with particularly relevant issues. It's called the Mayor's Task Force to End Chronic Homelessness, and it's a 30-odd-member coalition made up of high-level folks from government, nonprofits, law enforcement, the private sector and even some homeless people (who were added at the last second). The disparate group's charge is to develop a comprehensive plan to eliminate chronic homelessness, which is defined as long-term or serial homelessness.
Three board members of the Downtown PartnershipMike Neal, John Gupton and Brenda Sandersonserve on the task force, but there was no discussion of a panhandling ban until someone brought it up at last week's meeting. "These pieces of legislation seem to be directed toward people who are chronically homeless, and I would think the task force would be the appropriate place to discuss them," one task force member, who wished to remain anonymous, says. "When Nashville approached this problem years ago, we came to the conclusion that there were plenty of laws on the books to prevent aggressive, obnoxious behavior. Why we need this now is a good question."
Howard Allen thinks so, too. He's the task force membercurrently homeless himself, and involved with the Homeless Power Project, an advocacy groupwho raised the issue at Friday's meeting. He says he and others from the Power Project met with members of the Downtown Partnership and that they were very cordial, but the partnership made it clear that it's continuing to push for the panhandling ban. "I think it's sad to have them on the task force when we're all trying to find solutions, and then they're going and doing this," Allen says. "They need to wait on the task force."
Like it or not, the panhandling legislationwhich hasn't yet been introduced by downtown council member Mike Jamesonwon't get passed, and maybe won't even be filed, before the task force produces its preliminary report later this month. Still, some grumble that it seems like bad faith for the Downtown Partnership to try to circumvent the task force on this issue.
The partnership's Tom Turner doesn't see it that way. For him, homelessness and panhandling aren't directly related, which is to say that addressing the problems that underlie homelessness won't necessarily address the problems that give rise to panhandling and loitering. He says the task force's job is to address substance abuse issues and mental health issues, and to see that homeless people are able to receive the treatment they need.
The task force member who spoke to the Scene says a more systematic approach is warranted. "We really need to look at the root pieces around poverty if we're going to work on the problems of panhandling."
Moreover, Mayor Bill Purcell, who created the task force to begin with, seems to think the panhandling issue would be appropriately raised with the task force. "This is a good example of the type of issue that could be brought before the task force to be addressed," says Hank Helton, who directs affordable housing pursuits for Purcell. "It's an issue, and it's one that we're aware ofcertainly the mayor is aware ofand certainly the task force he created is an appropriate venue to address these issues."
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