Merchants: Aggressive panhandling problem in Quarter growing worse

Merchants: Aggressive panhandling problem in Quarter growing worse

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Business owners on an historic New Orleans street say the city's homeless are harassing customers and bringing down their bottom line.

"It's been ongoing for a few years. It's getting worse. The element on the street is very intimidating, unclean. They do drugs. It's just a mess," said the owner of Central Grocery Store on Decatur Street. He did not want FOX 8 to use his name.

On the streets of the French Quarter, groups of homeless people perch outside of storefronts sometimes for hours. While some people may politely beg, others go with a more aggressive approach. The owner of Central Grocery said one homeless person threw a drink on a customer after the customer refused to give them money.

"It's a very serious situation here, and it seems the city officials are not doing their job very well," he said.

New Orleans police spokesman Beau Tidwell says loitering laws have been repeatedly ruled unconstitutional, and a person's mere presence in a public space is not illegal.

Officers who responded to complaints in the 900 block of Decatur Street on Wednesday and did not make any arrests. Tidwell said they'll make an arrest if panhandlers commit a crime like aggressive solicitation or blocking public passageways.

Some tourists said they've noticed the in-your-face method being used openly.

"They follow you and keep begging you and keep asking over and over again," Texan Trisha Proctor said. "Last time I was here, you had the people playing [music] for money. I'm okay with that, but not someone just stopping you out of the blue and asking for money."

"Here they are very much in your face," New Yorker Danielle Dilorenzo said. "[Panhandlers] kind of followed me around for a little bit but eventually left me alone."
In February 2016, the FOX 8 Defenders highlighted a similar issue in this exact section of the French Quarter, and even caught one man urinating in the street while he smiled at a resident nearby.

The homeless in the French Quarter are a problem for other business owners who did not want to talk to on camera because they were afraid of possible retaliation.

The people who live on the streets of New Orleans are not afraid to tell you why they do what they do.

"Why does anybody do anything that they want to do? They're looking for something to make them happy, to make them content in life," vagrant Billy Highsail said. "This is the way I'm trying to do it. I tried to live out here and get a job and everything like that. It just wasn't the way I could do it. I couldn't find happiness that way. I'm just trying to find happiness the best way I can."

Many homeless like Highsail believe a few aggressive panhandlers give the entire homeless community a bad image.

"That's not the way you do it. You ask somebody for a dollar, and if they say no, you say thank you anyway," vagrant Grail Graves said.

"I'm not going to [urinate] on somebody else's property just because I have to go to the bathroom," Highsail said.

While business owners and panhandlers fight over space, both agree the city's availability of drugs and alcohol is a leading cause of why people end up living in the streets, begging for money.

"I can walk down to the corner and get you anything you want. I can get you rigs [to inject drugs]. I can get overdose drugs in case you do overdose. Everything is available," Graves said. "That easy."

The NOPD says now that Mardi Gras is over, the Eighth District will be refocusing its efforts to address aggressive solicitation in the French Quarter.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office says it has a 10-year plan to end homelessness. The mayor's office works with more than 60 service providers to conduct outreach to homeless individuals. The mayor's 2017 budget includes $1.5 million toward the establishment of a low-barrier homeless shelter.

It is not clear if all of the aggressive panhandlers are actually homeless. 

Copyright WVUE 2017. All rights reserved.