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Personae non gratae

December 17, 2012 12:10 am

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AN UNCIVIL WAR has broken out in Charlottesville that pits the residents and merchants of the city's Downtown Mall area against the homeless people and panhandlers they say have created a dangerous and unpleasant atmosphere there.

The North Downtown Residents Association issued a 36-page report last month asking the city to address its concerns. A later City Council discussion of the matter revealed differing views among council members on what the city's role should be.

Unlike an enclosed mall, which is privately owned and can pretty much set its own rules, Charlottesville's attractive downtown mall is a grouping of businesses along a public thoroughfare. That makes a huge difference in the legality of regulating what goes on there.

High priorities for the neighborhood association are that the city require all signs to conform to existing downtown standards; pass ordinances against sitting or lying on the mall and against verbal abuse; establish at least one permanent police kiosk on the mall; and install security cameras. Most of that seems reasonable.

But Charlottesville's own Rutherford Institute, which litigates civil liberties cases, sees in the NDRA's report "a desire on the part of certain individuals within the community to sacrifice civil liberties and oppress the poor for the sake of commercial and aesthetic interests."

The institute's president, John Whitehead, warned the city that the group's proposals "are unwise, uncharitable, and constitutionally infirm."

Mr. Whitehead is correct, or course, in pointing out that panhandlers and vagrants are just as much members of the community as anyone else, and that trying to ostracize, criminalize, or silence them imperils their constitutional rights. On the other hand, nobody--drunk or sober, penniless or wealthy, should be allowed to sprawl out on a sidewalk designed for pedestrian traffic.

Existent laws in Charlottesville--and every other locality--already deal with a host of illegal acts. Enforce them. Also, increased police patrols are warranted in areas that experience muggings, public drunkenness, public urination, "aggressive" panhandling, or general unruliness. Nothing wrong with that.

What is wrong, and goes counter to efforts by many communities to aid the down and out, is trying to shoo people from public property because of their manner or looks.

You never see derelicts in developers' graphic conceptions of their projects. But there are derelicts, and they have as much right to walk a tony public avenue as a seedy one.





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