ATLANTA – A ban on panhandling near downtown Atlanta's (search) tourist attractions was approved by the City Council (search) on Monday, despite hundreds of protesters who called the measure an attack on the poor.
The council had been considering the ban all summer at the urging of downtown merchants who said parts of Atlanta are so overrun with aggressive beggars that business is suffering.
But the plan — approved 12-3 — sparked opposition from activists for the poor and civil rights groups, who complained the ban would unfairly affect black males.
Several dozen opponents camped on the City Hall lawn on the eve of the vote, and after the ordinance was approved, about a dozen of them erupted in shouts and were escorted out of the council chambers.
"This is a day nobody in Atlanta should be proud of!" former City Councilman Derrick Boazman screamed as he was led away from the meeting in handcuffs.
The ordinance becomes law with the signature of Mayor Shirley Franklin (search), who supports the panhandling ban. Atlanta joins cities including Indianapolis and Orlando, Fla., with such prohibitions.
Only a small area of downtown — and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site (search) a few blocks away — would come under the ban making it illegal to beg for money.
The ordinance also makes it a crime citywide to panhandle at night or near public phones or ATMs. Violators would get a warning on the first offense, referral to a resource center on the second offense and a possible one-month jail term on further offenses.
William Fox, 57, who is homeless, said before the session that he never panhandled but "forcing people not to panhandle is taking away their rights. It's not American."
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 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, 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.
Several critics also have called the proposed ban a civil rights issue since many of the beggars are black.
"This is really about poor, black men. We're bad for business," said Joe Beasley, a 68-year-old Atlanta native who heads the regional office of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition (search).
The ban's sponsor, who is himself black, insisted the ordinance will do more to help homeless people than hurt them. "It's a tough issue. It will never be perfect," Councilman H. Lamar Willis said.