Criminal Justice

City Council zaps 'aggressive' panhandlers in New Orleans business district

By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |

It’s no longer legal to borrow a paraplegic’s wheelchair and fake infirmity yourself – not if your intent is to soften the hearts of people you’re panhandling in the Central Business District.

Downtown ATM machines? Do your begging elsewhere, as long as it’s not a bus or streetcar stop.

If you didn’t serve in the armed forces, don’t wear a uniform and pretend you’re a needy vet. And no make-up to make those wounds look more pitiable.

These and numerous other stipulations are part of an ordinance passed Thursday by the New Orleans City Council that both defines and bans “aggressive panhandling” in the downtown business area.

The law was crafted by Distict B Council Member Stacy Head in partnership with the Downtown Development District, the NOPD and Stacy Koch, City Hall’s coordinator of homeless services.

Head said that the ordinance was amended “fairly substantially” after Marjorie Esman of the ACLU cautioned that panhandling is widely regarded as a form of self-expression protected by the First Amendment.

To fend off any more push-back of that sort, Head distributed a roster of 14 constitutional cases from across the land in which crackdowns on panhandling or other manifestations of homelessness survived legal challenges.

District A Council Member Susan Guidry voiced a different concern: Did a campaign against panhandlers make sense at a time when the city is trying to fight more serious crime and lower the notoriously oversized population in the sheriff’s lock-up?

A jail sentence not to exceed six months is one penalty for violation of the new law. Alternatively, a scofflaw can be ordered to perform 25 hours of community service per offense. The third penalty option is to fine aggressive beggars up to $500.

Head said jailing people would be a last resort and asked Guidry for a friendly amendment but Guidry declined, saying it was something she would have to research.

Councis Member-at-large Jackie Clarkson sought to play peacemaker. Everyone is right, she offered, but the ordinance is “more right.”

As proof that street people can be brought to heel by the threat of jail, Clarkson harked back to her days representing District C and her success in making the benches in Jackson Square too uncomfortable — both physically (arm rests were added) and legally (the threat of jail) — for folks to sleep on.

Head stressed that the law does not outlaw the solicitation of charitable donations in the CBD, provided the alms seeker sits quietly with his or her intentions signaled demurely by a sign.

The legislation passed 5 to 1, with Guidry opposed. Council member Cynthia Hedge Morrell was absent for the vote.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
About Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led to guilty pleas in federal court. Her work attracted some of journalism's highest honors, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.

  • Jane Johnson

    Thanks to Council member Guidry for keeping the big picture in sight. Arrests, citations, and jail for petty offenses only distracts police from serious crime and unnecesarily fills up our jail – which all agree should be downsized.

  • jeffrey

    I wish I had a joke here. Is there a way to say “Stacy Head is a hateful #$&*” but.. you know… funny-like?

    How one Utah City addressed the panhandlers who abused the 1st Amendment’s Free Speech

    American Fork erects barriers to stop panhandling

    PHOTOS – Concrete barriers erected in American Fork to deter panhandlers

    If NOLA wants to change, it can start with
    temporarily placing concrete barriers on the side of medians nearest the driver’s side on traffic for
    5 car lengths. Try one intersection first, with a 3 feet high concrete barrier. Well maybe 4 feet high, as that is harder for a panhandler to sit on.

    POINT. Just 1-3 months of no money for alcohol or drugs will make the panhandlers and homeless listen to the homeless shelters, homeless advocates and drug counselors.

    Just having panhandlers jump over the concrete barrier and onto the below pavement on a repeated basis will be enough to dent the money exchanged where it won’t be worth the exercise, or effort, to panhandle.

    Having the panhandler standing five car lengths back from the red light will cause more walking back and forth and the panhandler will be unable to effectively show a sign for the first 5 cars waiting at
    the red light.
    Hence, a massive dent in money given.

    If you have to have a long row of concrete planters with bushes or trees, you can do it later and have the urban planner, architects and landscape artist work on beautifying it.

    But for now, just put the concrete barriers. In the future, the median on the side nearest the driver side
    can be like the Canal St and City Park street car stop. At that street car stop, there is no room for panhandling.

    Concrete Barriers on the bridges at Earhart and Jefferson Davis along Washington Ave should have it’s concrete barrier on the driver side for the 1st two car lengths, replaced or retrofitted to be higher to eliminate sitting on concrete barrier.

    Maybe steel re-bar rods can be drilled on the top of the barrier and another concrete wall with per-drilled
    or precast holes can be placed on top of the existing concrete barrier. It only has to be a few car lengths long. Just having one car length, or half car length, with a retro fitted concrete barrier at say 4 feet high can eliminate sitting and force the panhandler further away from the red light.

    Moving the panhandler to the a couple of car lengths from the red light reduces the number cars possible that can give money. Furthermore, the panhandler is walking against traffic and looking forward. It is very difficult for the panhandler to look backwards and still walk forward without getting hit and running
    into a car.

    (1) The I-10 and Camp St. off-ramp should have a higher left hand side barrier for about 5 car lengths.
    The 3-foot concrete barrier is not enough. A 4-foot or 6-foot for even 2 car lengths should at least be tried. The height should be enough to make it difficult to sit on top of the barrier on a repeated basis for the panhandler to avoid getting hit by traffic.

    (2) Underneath the I-10 overpass, Calliope St, for each of the intersections, concrete barriers should be
    placed on the median side that nearest the driver’s side of passing traffic to make it difficult to stand, sit,
    or to walk easily back and forth to the driver’s side of the first 3 cars waiting at a red light.

    (3) The I-10 and Elysian Fields off ramp exit should have concrete barriers on the driver’s side for about
    4-5 car lengths when cars are stopped for the red light onto Elysian Fields.

    (4) The North Claiborne Ave and Elysian Field intersection should have concrete barriers placed on the median’s closest to the driver’s side for about 5 car length when cars are stopped for the red light.

    (5) Louisiana and South Claiborne Ave should also have concrete barriers placed on the median closest to the driver’s side. Having little kids running into traffic is just dangerous!

    (6) South Carrollton Ave and Earhart.
    (7) Dublin and Palmetto, near South Carrollton Ave.
    (8) Earhart and S. Dupre.
    (9) Earhart and Washington Ave,
    (10) Earhart and Jefferson Davis Pkwy.

    (11) Poydras and South Claiborne Ave (I-10 Poydras Exit off ramp), same.
    (12) Earhart and South Claiborne Ave.
    (13) Esplanade and North Claiborne Ave.
    (14) Esplanade and Rampart St. (just on edge of French Quarter)
    (15) Magnolia and Calliope St near the Home Depot. Re-Stripe Left hand Emergency Lane for 3
    car lengths or put line of concrete barriers and slowly angle to existing concrete barrier when
    going away from red light.

  • ALSO, for medians with a crossing side walk, put a wall on one side of the sidewalk between the side walk and the on-coming traffic direction. This way the panhandler has to step out into traffic so show their signs of “will work for food”. The wall should be high enough to block view of any sign held by the panhandler at shoulder height or below. Holding a sign up high gets tiring and physically stressfull on the panhandlers arms.