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

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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.

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