Open up debate on panhandling in downtown

Friday, August 23, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 34

Councilman Freddie O’Connell wants to do something about panhandling in Nashville. He’s still working on precisely what.

O’Connell’s district includes downtown. From both personal observation and reports from residents and business owners, he had over time become aware of an increase in the number of panhandlers.

Including, sometimes, aggressive encounters.

“I heard from residents and employees downtown, particularly women, that their sense of safety is something that over the past 18 months really shifted noticeably,” O’Connell said.

A city that prides itself on its welcoming ways and visitor-friendly vibes clearly does not want its sense of safety called into question. O’Connell, being a city legislator, thought first of changing the Metro Code to put tighter limits on panhandling.

That, he discovered, was wading into treacherous waters.

The current code defines panhandling basically as a solicitation made in person for money or something of value.

The definition specifically does allow “the act of passively standing or sitting, performing music, or singing with a sign or other indication that a donation is being sought.”

This is, after all, Music City, where dreams of stardom may well start with a street-side solo performance and an implied invitation for “payment.”

Aggressive panhandling is defined as blocking a person’s way, persisting after being told no, approaching in a threatening way, touching, and so on.

Aggressive panhandling is illegal. Simple panhandling is limited to daylight hours, and illegal in certain locations, like bus stops, sidewalk cafes and within certain distances of ATMs and building entrances.

In March, O’Connell introduced a bill to broaden the panhandling restrictions by adding certain high-tourist areas downtown, among them the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge and Broadway between First and Sixth Avenues.

“Then we sort of had the bigger conversation,” he said. And that conversation introduced some complications for the legislative process.

First it turned out that, for whatever reasons, Metro police officers were more often using a 2015 state law against aggressive panhandling.

“We very seldom use the local code, which would come with a citation,” O’Connell said. “So seldom that it was like, why do we even do this?”

At the same time, advocates for the homeless were not keen on an expansion of a law that they saw as potentially targeting already disadvantaged people.

And they had an argument on their side: Ordinances like Nashville’s limiting panhandling have been rejected by federal courts, which found them an unconstitutional restriction on speech.

Faced with a panhandling law on the books that was “little used, clearly not a deterrent and could be a legal liability,” O’Connell responded in May with a new bill that would have deleted all of Nashville’s panhandling limitations.

But experience had taught him that more discussions within the community were necessary, and with budget issues and the citywide election dominating the Council’s attention, “I ran out of time in the term.”

It’s his hope to return to the issue when a new Council is seated. He also hopes for more community input, with a resulting broader approach to addressing the issue.

“What are other things we could be doing, should be doing?” he wonders, to improve the downtown situation without making things worse for the disadvantaged.

One possibility he mentioned as potentially helpful is the coming Davidson County Sheriff’s Behavioral Care Center, intended to provide an alternative to jail for people charged with minor offenses who also face mental health issues.

More and better housing for the homeless is another goal.

“I think we’re looking at some stuff that’s coming online that will be helpful,” he said.

Meanwhile, how do you personally respond to panhandlers? It’s a vexing issue for me.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.