CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Reminding government officials that their job is to represent the interests of all members of the community and not insulate citizens from tragic and persistent social problems such as homelessness and poverty, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is calling on the City of Charlottesville to reject a 36-page proposal by the North Downtown Residents Association (NDRA) ostensibly aimed at keeping disadvantaged members of the community, such as panhandlers and vagrants, away from the City’s Downtown Mall. As Whitehead points out, the report is particularly troublesome in that it evidences 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. Issues of particular concern in the NDRA’s report are proposals that would essentially criminalize the poor, criminalize speech, silence the disadvantaged, ban sitting or lying on the Mall, and increase police presence and surveillance on the Mall.
“At a time such as Thanksgiving, especially, when communities across the country are mobilizing to help the poor and disadvantaged, this report calling for city officials to ostracize the homeless in favor of commercial and aesthetic interests is a sad reflection on Charlottesville,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Homelessness is a tragic problem in this country, and not one that will be resolved by hiding it away or criminalizing those who already struggle to get by. Frankly, the last thing this city or any other needs is more laws.”
The 36-page report, “A Study of Deteriorating Conditions on the Downtown Mall with Recommended Solutions,” authored by the North Downtown Residents Association (NDRA), a five-member neighborhood committee, and reportedly endorsed by downtown businesses, came to light after a recent City Council meeting in which councilors entertained a proposal intended to “address concerns related to rude, disruptive behavior and on occasion criminal activity on the Downtown Mall.” The options discussed at the meeting included: changes to the City ordinance to ban all lying down or sitting on the Mall—a proposal that was broadened to prohibit directly lying down or sitting on the Mall within ten feet of a building, as well as a prohibition on sleeping on the Mall; a prohibition on vulgar language; the creation of a Street Outreach Coordinator, paid by the City; increased police presence on the Mall; the installation of surveillance cameras on the Mall; subjecting panhandlers’ signs to the same design standards as businesses; and launching a pilot program for Downtown Mall Ambassadors, who would “serve as additional sets of eyes and eyes for the police department.” In roundly condemning the Report’s objectives, which would “subject our community to increased government surveillance and greater police presence, pit City officials against our homeless population for the sake of sanitizing the Downtown Mall, and blatantly violate the First Amendment,” The Rutherford Institute has warned city officials that the proposals for public action contained in the NDRA Report are unwise, uncharitable, and in many respects, constitutionally infirm.