Zone Defense 

A proposed panhandling ordinance would replace the city's often-ignored panhandling permit law.

Last week, a Memphis City Council committee voted to establish a downtown anti-panhandling zone. But it's not the first time the council has attempted to ban panhandlers from certain spaces.

In 1994, the Memphis City Council passed an ordinance requiring panhandlers to apply for a permit to panhandle in designated areas, such as the Main Street Mall, the airport, public parks, public libraries, and the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Panhandling in other areas is currently legal without a permit.

"Back then, I was a patrol officer downtown. We had a problem with panhandling, so this ordinance was a move by the council to try and control the number of people who panhandled," said Vince Higgins, a former Memphis police officer who now serves as city permits administrator.

In the past six months, only 26 permits have been filed. The free permit is good for one month, and a valid ID is required to obtain it.

The city permits office moved from 201 Poplar downtown to a building on Union Extended in Midtown two years ago. Since then, Higgins said the number of people applying for permits has dropped dramatically, likely because many panhandlers don't have transportation to the Midtown office.

With the proposed anti-panhandling zone, the permit would be abolished.

"If you're asking for a prohibited zone, why ask for a permit too?" said Larry Bloom, public safety manager at the Center City Commission. "Also, it's unreasonable to ask someone to go five miles east to get a permit."

The proposed anti-panhandling zone, which was passed in the council's public safety committee last week, would make panhandling illegal in the downtown area bordered by Vance Avenue, Fourth Street, Mill Avenue, and Riverside Drive.

In addition, the proposal establishes distance restrictions from other public areas: No panhandling would be allowed within 50 feet of a health-care facility, a bank, or an ATM or within 25 feet of a church, a parking-lot pay box, a pay phone, a trolley or bus stop, and numerous other locations. Those restrictions would apply citywide.

"In the last two weeks, we've had two robberies that started out as panhandling and got aggressive," said Colonel Robert Shemwell of the Memphis Police Department's South Main precinct. "One was off an alley near Beale Street and the other was in Court Square Park. Those are our two biggest areas for tourists and businesses. We're trying to clean it up, and I think it's getting worse."

Council member Wanda Halbert was the only public safety committee member to vote against the ordinance last week. She argued that it wasn't fair to establish a no-panhandling zone for downtown when other areas of the city also have panhandling problems.

"I've experienced panhandling at grocery stores and Walmart in Whitehaven. I'm not sure how this ordinance is fair for people in other parts of the city," Halbert said.

Advocates for the homeless also think the ordinance will push panhandlers into other areas of the city.

"This ordinance does away with the permit, but with the boundary restrictions, it further restricts panhandling," said Brad Watkins with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center. "The only thing this new law effectively does is move passive panhandling and the homeless outside of that zone downtown."

In addition to passing the anti-panhandling zone ordinance, a council committee also passed a complementary ordinance that would ban single-beer sales in the anti-panhandling zone. The full council will vote on both ordinances in a first reading on Tuesday, March 9th.

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