ATLANTA – About two hundred people crowded into a City Council meeting Monday on a proposed panhandling ban after homeless people and dozens of their advocates spent the night on the steps of City Hall to show their opposition.
Lisa Borders (search), the City Council president, had to shush the crowd to start several hours of public comment on a resolution that would make it illegal to beg for money near downtown hotels or tourist sites.
Among the first to speak was Elisabeth Omilami, who spent the night outside. She pleaded tearfully for the council not to pass the ban.
"The ability to ask for alms is a God-given ability. You can pass laws to protect trees, but what about human beings? God help us!" Omilami said.
Although there was some supporters of the ban, most of them were from the same groups of homeless, activists for the homeless and civil rights organizations who appeared at previous meetings to oppose the measure.
A vote on the proposal was delayed last month after a contentious meeting that included shouting matches and hissing from critics. The Council was to debate the issue later Monday, but it was unclear when they would vote on it.
William Fox, 57, who is homeless, said before the session began that he never panhandled but "forcing people not to panhandle is taking away their rights. It's not American."
Downtown business owners say aggressive beggars are keeping people away from the central business district. Last month, Home Depot (search) co-founder Bernie Marcus, who is bankrolling the $200 million Georgia Aquarium (search) being built downtown, threw his support behind the ban, saying the success of the attraction depends on its passing.
The billionaire philanthropist said he has donated $600,000 through his foundation to the Gateway Center (search), a 300-bed facility for the city's homeless.
Bobby James, who described himself as once homeless, said the ban would be a good idea.
"A lot of times, tourists give money to people, and they go to the liquor store. They buy a crack rock. You just enable them," James said.
But homeless advocates are instead pushing for affordable housing and a living wage for the city's homeless population, saying the ban would criminalize a person's right to ask for charity when they cannot take care of themselves.