Crime

Panhandling in Macon reduced by community effort

While panhandling hasn’t completely disappeared from Macon’s landscape, some say it isn’t the problem it once was.

There doesn’t seem to be a single fix for the problem of people begging for money across town, largely at interstate exits and in downtown.

Rather, a different approach to policing and more community awareness in dealing with the homeless population has seemingly led to the desired effect that the former Macon City Council had in mind when it first passed a panhandling ordinance nearly a decade ago. That ordinance was adopted by Macon-Bibb County when the city and county merged a year and a half ago.

Josh Rogers, president and CEO of NewTown Macon, a public-private partnership that promotes living and working in downtown, said panhandling hasn’t been a major issue of late for downtown residents and merchants.

“I haven’t gotten a single complaint in the year I’ve been (at NewTown),” he said. “(Panhandling) still happens -- I’ve been approached myself -- but it’s very rare. We seem to have gotten a good handle on the problem. We have the right law and the right enforcement. These measures have made a big difference.”

Panhandling arrests have dropped significantly over the past few years, according to data from the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office.

In 2012, there were 53 panhandling arrests, followed by 47 in 2013. But in 2014, there were just four. So far in 2015, there have been three arrests, according to sheriff’s office data.

Col. Mike Carswell and Capt. Eric Walker said the sheriff’s office has altered its approach, preferring to write citations rather than jailing accused beggars.

Walker said deputies issued 31 citations for panhandling in 2014, and so far, 15 this year. (Walker said a change in computer software means that the citation data isn’t available before 2014.)

Walker said deputies have taken the time to deal with would-be panhandlers, and it’s not the same people being arrested over and over.

“Once they’re charged, they usually move to a different part of town. They get the idea they need to move on,” he said. “With the downtown units, if (the panhandler) is someone we haven’t seen before, (deputies) will tell him the situation. After they’ve been told, they’ll be cited the next time.”

Walker said arrests usually come if someone is a repeat offender or if something else is at play, such as being drunk or becoming violent. Walker said downtown merchants usually know to call the sheriff’s office if a panhandler is in front of their businesses instead of confronting the person themselves.

Because panhandlers typically can’t afford to pay fines, Walker said Macon-Bibb County Municipal Court usually tries to work out a community service penalty instead, often working with one of the local homeless organizations.

The state’s closing of mental health facilities a few years ago has led to an increase in the number of homeless people who have physical or mental health issues with which the sheriff’s office must deal, he said.

“Macon has organizations that will help feed and clothe you,” Walker said. “We’re genuinely trying to help folks. With the decline of available mental health facilities in Georgia, there are people who need help who have fallen by the wayside.”

Walker said deputies will respond to a call of a homeless person down and send him to a hospital. In addition, given the possibility of extreme temperatures in the winter and summer, deputies try to be proactive about directing people to shelters.

COMMUNITY RESPONSE

Over the past few years, the community has placed a greater emphasis on helping the homeless.

In 2007, the Macon Coalition to End Homelessness was created as a partnership of local groups to attack the problem in the city. Currently, the coalition is made up of 18 organizations, including churches, the Bibb County Board of Education, River Edge and groups that feed and clothe the homeless.

One of the partners, Daybreak, opened in downtown toward the end of 2012 and provides essential services to the homeless, including hygiene assistance, health services, education and job preparation support. Daybreak’s program director, Sister Elizabeth Greim, said the coalition’s partner agencies work hard not to overlap services and to fill in any gaps in caring for the homeless.

Because of the availability of care in Macon, Greim said, she’s heard relatively few stories from her clients about panhandling.

“Very rarely do I hear about someone getting picked up for panhandling,” she said. “I have heard some people say they are experiencing less of it. It’s less aggressive than it used to be.”

Among her clients, she said, panhandling hasn’t been as much of an issue with law enforcement as have others violations, such as trespassing charges when the homeless are caught sleeping on someone else’s property.

Because of the number of agencies in Macon assisting the homeless, “there are probably fewer reasons (to panhandle),” she said.

PERSUADING PEOPLE NOT TO PANHANDLE

Johnny Hathcock, executive director of Macon Outreach at Mulberry, said his agency serves about 1,000 people per week. He said his clients -- many who also use the Daybreak services -- haven’t faced problems with law enforcement because they know they can find food and other services at Macon Outreach.

“I don’t think (panhandling) is as much of an issue,” he said. “We’ve proved that (food is) something you don’t have to beg for, and we’re not the only game in town.”

In addition to serving hot meals that include a meat, two side dishes and dessert, Hathcock said his pantry also offers groceries that, if managed properly, could last a family for four or five days. Hathcock said his staff works with clients to help them make the most efficient use of their groceries.

Panhandlers have approached him and his wife on the street, but he never gives them money.

“That sets kind of a bad precedent,” he said. “I say, ‘if you’re hungry, I’ll give you something to eat.’”

Hathcock said he and his staff try to discourage their clients from asking people for money.

“If things are desperate, they can come here and tell me,” he said. “I believe there is less panhandling because we provide a balanced meal.”

At Macon Outreach last week, a formerly homeless man who said his name is Victor said the homeless people he knows who still panhandle have tried to be smarter in how they go about it.

For example, some will panhandle near businesses they know are less likely to call law enforcement. When he was homeless in the early 1990s, Victor said, he would sleep in Rose Hill Cemetery because law enforcement often focused most of its attention on makeshift homeless camps under the overpasses alongside the Ocmulgee River.

Victor said he had a friend who would take copies of books from the library that had been donated and try to sell them to passersby as a way around panhandling.

Walker said that while some will try to find ways around the panhandling law by offering to work for food, most loopholes have been closed with the panhandling ordinance.

The Leadership Macon Class of 2012 -- a group of rising community leaders organized by the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce -- also contributed to reducing the number of panhandlers by setting up a series of collection stations throughout downtown that resemble parking meters.

Jonathan Harwell-Dye, director of public relations for the Macon Arts Alliance who is overseeing collections on behalf of his class, said the group has donated $9,000 to the coalition over the two years the meters have been active.

The donations fell from $6,000 to $3,000 from the first year to the second, but Harwell-Dye said that was because the class had sponsorship money the first year. He said people still put money in the meters on a regular basis, though he didn’t have specific amounts.

“We get change out of them every day,” he said.

Walker said the groups involved in the coalition have helped Macon’s homeless population. However, he encouraged any groups interested in helping the homeless to do so through an established agency. He noted that a couple of years ago, law enforcement had to shut down a church group that was trying to feed the homeless because the group didn’t have approval from the county health department to distribute food.

Rogers said that with reduced panhandling, the perception of downtown being unsafe is slowly changing.

“Downtowns typically have the highest density of people, so if you need to panhandle, that’s where you’d go,” he said. “But now they are getting access to the things they need. ... If you haven’t been downtown in a year or two, you’ll have a totally different perception. Having thriving businesses here has made a huge difference.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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