In its latest effort to stop panhandling downtown, the Center City Commission is focusing on beer.
The commission has proposed a pair of city ordinances that would basically create an anti-panhandling zone and ban single beer sales within it. The zone would permit a few passive panhandling areas (as long as panhandlers don't threaten, touch, or follow people they're soliciting).
"We have a responsibility to make the public environment downtown a more comfortable and safe one," said Jeff Sanford, president of the Center City Commission.
A Memphis City Council committee is expected to discuss the proposals early next year. Both the single beer ban zone and the anti-panhandling zone share the same borders — Mill on the north, Fourth Street in most areas of the east (the border extends to Lauderdale at one point), Vance on the south, and Riverside on the west.
The anti-panhandling zone establishes strict boundaries where panhandling isn't allowed: No panhandling would be allowed within 50 feet of a health-care facility, a bank, or an ATM or within 25 feet of a church, a parking lot pay box, a pay phone, a trolley or bus stop, and numerous other locations.
According to Tulin Ozdeger, the civil rights director for the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, the proposed ordinances are some of the strictest ones she's seen in the country.
"These types of laws generally either move people around to other areas, or they simply don't have an affect at all," Ozdeger said. "We have not seen a city that's been able to eliminate panhandling with an anti-panhandling law."
In March, the commission conducted a study in which two downtown convenience stores voluntarily stopped selling single beers for a short period of time.
"The problems we were having with public urination and people falling asleep on the trolley tracks were dramatically decreased [during that time]," Sanford said.
Other than the downtown Shell station at Auction and Main, only small, locally owned businesses would be affected by the ban. Most of the large corporate gas stations downtown, such as the Exxon at Poplar and Danny Thomas and the BP at Poplar and Danny Thomas, are outside the zone and will be permitted to continue selling single beers.
"Of course this will hurt our business. And we believe this won't stop panhandling," said Amjad Salem, an employee at Jack's Food Store near the corner of Jefferson and Main. "This will affect more than just homeless people. Not everyone wants to buy a six-pack."
Brad Watkins with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center said the beer ban will either encourage panhandlers to become more aggressive in order to raise enough money to buy a six-pack of beer or push panhandlers to other areas of the city where single beer sales are still allowed.
"Curbing panhandling to such a degree without providing options out of homelessness may result in more muggings or break-ins. A person with an addiction is going to sate that addiction," Watkins said. "We need to be looking into addressing the underlying reasons behind homelessness."