Police target increase in aggressive beggars

Police say hard times have brought more aggressive panhandlers to downtown Augusta, prompting beefed up police patrols, mostly along Broad Street.

"Of course with the economy being bad, people being out of jobs, they're going to resort to harder tactics," said Richmond County sheriff's Lt. Scott Gay. "We thought we had a good handle on it (panhandling) before, and they have progressively returned to the downtown area. So we're going to address it as often as possible."

Lt. Gay said there seems to be more people asking for money who aren't taking no for an answer. He said panhandling seems to occur most between the afternoon and early evening.

"That's the time that we are targeting," he said.

"That's the time business owners are telling us there's a problem there."

Lt. Gay said officers are mostly looking to arrest those who are aggressive in their efforts to get a handout and those who have been previously warned.

"The aggressive ones are the ones we're looking for," he said. "Someone who's having bad times (and not being aggressive), we don't want to make it worse."

One of the most recent arrests on misdemeanor aggressive panhandling occurred Nov. 27 at the 1700 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It involved a 46-year-old homeless man, according to the Richmond County jail committal.

Lt. Gay said panhandlers also have been seen at Southgate shopping center.

Augusta's ordinance on aggressive panhandling forbids it at such locations as Augusta Common and along Broad Street from Fifth Street to 15th Street.

Not everyone thinks city ordinances are the solution.

The National Coalition for the Homeless believes laws that criminalize panhandlers don't solve the problem. In Cincinnati, a full-time outreach worker interacts with the homeless to get them off the street and addresses complaints prior to police involvement, the group says.

"We support the right of people to panhandle, and likewise we support the right of the citizen to give or not give, as long as the asking is being done in a non-aggressive manner," said Michael Stoops, the director of the coalition.

At issue is the definition of aggressive. Mr. Stoops said some might say asking twice for help is aggressive, but he offers the example of someone following you to an ATM after you've said no.

Police advise people to avoid panhandlers by not making eye contact or engaging in conversation with them. For those who want to help, police suggest donating to a legitimate organization that specializes in helping the homeless.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 823-3338 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.

AGGRESSIVE PANHANDLING

Augusta's ordinance on aggressive panhandling forbids it in a district that includes Augusta Common and Broad Street from its intersection with Fifth Street to its intersection with 15th Street, and a district that includes the Armstrong Galleria shopping center, which is bordered by Hopkins Street, Eighth Street, Laney-Walker Boulevard and James Brown Boulevard. The ordinance is designed to keep pedestrian traffic unimpeded and to foster a safe and harassment-free environment. It defines panhandling as begging, and aggressive panhandling as that which keeps someone from passing through or remaining in a public area "because of fear, concern or apprehension by such behavior."

Source: Augusta's official government Web site