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Laws that target panhandling put homeless in a bind
Most cities seek to steer those in need toward social services
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Hall County Veterans Coalition — Serving Homeless and Veterans in Need

What: VA benefit counseling, PTSD counseling, health screenings, legal services, housing assistance, employment information, clothing provisions, haircuts and addiction treatment
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: St. John Baptist Church, 757 E.E. Butler Parkway in Gainesville

Under the Bridge Ministries Thanksgiving food packing event

What: Food packing for those in need sponsored by Cargill Cares, Victory Foods, Gainesville Housing Authority, J & J Foods and partnering churches.  
When: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Food packing : Covenant Connections Church, 5818 Atlanta Highway, Flowery Branch, from 8:30-11 a.m.
Outreach event: Atlanta Street Apartments, 240 Atlanta St., Gainesville, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

L.A.M.P. Ministries Thanksgiving meal

When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: 839 Jesse Jewell Parkway, Gainesville
How to help: visit www.lampga.org to make donations

Related story: Gainesville homeless camp floods — again

Homelessness falls in Georgia

A total 13,790 Georgians experienced homelessness this year, a 31 percent decline since 2010, according to a report released Thursday by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

Veteran homelessness also declined 31 percent between 2011 and 2015, while family homelessness declined 32 percent and chronic homelessness fell 45 percent.

Fifty-eight percent of Georgia’s homeless were staying in shelters, with the remaining 42 percent out on the street.  

Homeless advocates, however, argue that the annual count underestimates the number of homeless children and youth.

 

It is common for a Buddhist monk in training to panhandle for a day’s meal. The act is intended to teach humility.

But when it comes to the homeless asking strangers for money, sheer necessity trumps any ethical teaching moment. There is no pride in the endeavor.

“It’s hard for me to go ask somebody for something,” said Hines, a 60-year-old longtime resident of the homeless camp beneath the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville.

In recent months, Oakwood and Flowery Branch have passed ordinances that criminalize panhandling and sleeping in public.

Officials in those cities said they were cracking down on “aggressive” panhandling and people regularly camping out in public places, such as streets and sidewalks.

The offense is now considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Flowery Branch Police Chief David Spillers has said the city’s ordinance primarily targets repeat offenders.

“If it’s a one-time thing, we’re going to actively pursue a homeless shelter and three churches here that run food banks — we make constant referrals to those,” he added. “We would be more than happy to take somebody to Gainesville to a homeless shelter.”

Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said his city’s law would aim to prevent “situations that put people in an unsafe situation ... and people out there (from) scamming the public.”

Officials said the laws were prompted by a reported influx of “Romanians” north from Decatur and Suwanee.

Homeless assistance programs are in short supply in Oakwood and Flowery Branch, with most shelters, social service agencies and food pantries located in Gainesville.

Gainesville and Hall County officials said they have no plans to pass similar laws.

But those living in poverty, on the streets and in shelters told The Times that being targeted this way could have unintended consequences.

“You ain’t got to be homeless to panhandle,” said Barry, a local carpenter who sometimes gets his meals from the Good News at Noon ministry.  

Barry said he believes outlawing panhandling will compel some homeless to rob and steal to survive.

“Everybody’s luck ain’t the same,” he added. “I’m not going to say I would never have to (panhandle).”

The approach to panhandling by local governments is different than the paths taken in other communities. Though many cities have similar laws on the books, they also dream up creative alternatives. For example, refurbished parking meters were turned into coin deposit slots for the homeless in Athens.

And some businesses and municipalities across the nation have floated the idea of giving tokens to tourists at participating hotels to pass off to panhandlers, which can then be redeemed for food or shelter.

Homeless advocates said prohibitions on panhandling only work when enough resources and services are in place to support the homeless.

“When the city of Atlanta passed a similar ordinance, my immediate reaction was one of outrage and I believed that homeless people were being criminalized, but I guess you can say that I’ve evolved on this issue,” said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs operates a client support/tracking system for all recipients of federal homeless assistance funds as a way to avoid duplication and abuse of services.

But panhandling can allow some of the most vulnerable on the streets to remain in the shadows, under the radar and off the grid, Moss said, making the tax-supported programs and services, such as shelters and pantries, less effective.

“While we don’t want to lock people up for being poor, we also don’t want to encourage a system that works at cross-purposes with an established homeless support network,” Moss said. “But if your community is devoid of homeless assistance resources, such ordinances can create an institutional barrier to people who are just trying to survive.”

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