NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - French Quarter residents and those celebrating Halloween won’t have to worry as much about aggressive panhandlers after local law enforcement did a sweep of the area Wednesday morning (Oct. 31). They arrested those blocking sidewalks, store fronts and driveways.
“The aggressive panhandling in the French Quarter is out of control,” local businessman Sidney Torres said in a new commercial. “The obstruction of residents' walkways and driveways, as well as public urination, has plagued our neighborhoods for way too long.”
Torres said there’s a need for a crackdown.
“Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of calls on the app for aggressive panhandling and, last week, a friend of mine got punched in the face for asking someone to move off the sidewalk,” explained Torres. “It’s scary to walk outside at night. I mean, it’s just out of control.”
Torres is helping to fund regular sweeps of the area for the next two months as part of a partnership between the French Quarter Task Force, the NOPD, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, the SPCA and Parks and Parkways.
On Wednesday, local law enforcement took the first steps in prioritizing the removal of aggressive panhandlers in the Quarter.
“We have to maintain some order, and if they’re sitting on a park bench they’re fine,” said Eighth District Commander Nicholas Gernon. “You can see the people here were obstructing a public passageway. They were carrying illegal knives, so we’re arresting them.”
Gernon said blocking the sidewalk can be a public safety issue.
“As they grow in numbers, they’re forcing people to walk into the street, the’re forcing people to walk around them. The dogs get aggressive with people as they’re walking by,” he explained.
The SPCA was there, too, hauling off pets to be held until the owners are out of jail.
"They have dogs. They know they can't go to jail if they have a dog. So, they have a dog as a reason not to have to go to jail," Torres said.
“Just because we’re homeless,” one of the women arrested said, claiming they were unfairly targeted - a charge Gernon denies.
"We're not necessarily targeting people or groups of people, we're just targeting the behavior," said Gernon.
Torres said this is not a homeless issue. He said it’s about travelers who set up makeshift camps when the weather’s right, often during festival season.
“There’s no respect for the people who live in the neighborhood or the tourists,” Torres said. “You get asked, ‘Can you give me a dollar? Can you give me something?’ And when you say, ‘No, I don’t have anything,’ they get very aggressive and in your face.”
But former nomad Hunter Robinson said there’s a difference between aggressive panhandling and what these folks are doing.
“The kids were just sitting down, they weren’t hurting anybody. The store owners asked them to move and they did. They didn’t give the store any trouble when they did,” explained Robinson. “Stupid laws like this, a kid can’t even sit down on the sidewalk. It’s a public sidewalk, why shouldn’t you be able to sit down?”
Krista Willy knows some of those arrested. She said she understands the importance of enforcing the law but begs compassion for her friends.
“They’re really cool kids and they’re just trying to have a good time,” Willy said. “It’s so hard to understand from their perspective. I haven’t had a dollar in my pocket for like, a week.”
Others, like Bob Simms of the French Quarter Task Force, said there’s no excuse.
“The residents, the businesses in the French Quarter, it’s getting very difficult just to walk around,” Simms said.
Torres is encouraging folks to report aggressive panhandling by downloading the French Quarter Task Force app. He said he hopes to eventually make the sweeps permanent.