Policing Panhandling 

Center City Commission approves panhandling security force; homeless people protest.

Last Thursday morning, about 40 homeless people gather at Midtown's Manna House, a hospitality center that offers hot coffee and clean clothes for the homeless.

Sitting on colorful benches and worn sofas, they listen to Manna House volunteer Peter Gathje and Mid-South Peace and Justice Center director Jacob Flowers talk about a Center City Commission (CCC) proposal to hire security officers to stop aggressive panhandling downtown.

"We need to organize a resistance to the CCC for harassing the homeless," Gathje says. "This is an attempt to criminalize the poor."

The next day, at a CCC board meeting, about 12 of the homeless from Thursday's meeting flood into the cramped boardroom holding signs that read, "Housing Not Harassment."

Despite that, the CCC votes in favor of employing four guards for a $53,000 three-month pilot project.

CCC members say they're not out to harass homeless people but to deter aggressive panhandling. The officers will have the power to detain people but must call Memphis police to make an arrest.

"There's an important distinction between the status of homelessness and panhandling," says CCC chair Paul Morris. "Panhandling scares people. It makes visitors not want to return to Memphis."

Downtown blogger Paul Ryburn runs an online forum called Handling Panhandling, where he posts pictures of people asking for change. Ryburn believes some panhandlers are scam artists. "I see people with clean, neatly pressed clothes on. A few of them have even told me they have homes," Ryburn says.

CCC president Jeff Sanford says that 99 percent of downtown panhandlers are not homeless. Flowers disagrees, saying many panhandlers are trying to gather money required to stay in homeless shelters. Memphis has no free shelters.

"They've got to get that $6 or $7 to get into the shelter every night, but now they can't panhandle to do it," Flowers says. He thinks the CCC should spend its money on a free shelter or social services, such as drug rehabilitation.

"I think the first thing that needs to be addressed is the drug problem. That's what's driving panhandling," says Tony McClain, a homeless man at the Manna House meeting.

Flowers says the Peace and Justice Center will monitor the security force, which will begin the test phase on April 1st. They'll be watching to ensure the officers aren't meddling into "quality-of-life" issues for downtown's homeless population, such as sleeping on park benches.

"The downtown community doesn't just mean people who pay $150,000 for a condo," Flowers says. "It's also the guys who sleep on the steps outside that condo."

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