Homeless Advocates Launch Campaign to Ban Anti-Panhandling Laws

By: - August 29, 2018 12:00 am

A panhandler standing on a corner in Flagstaff, Arizona, asks passersby for help. Cities that have cracked down on panhandling have met resistance in the courts. Felicia Fonseca/The Associated Press

Advocates for the homeless have launched a nationwide campaign to strike down laws that criminalize panhandling.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, together with local legal organizations, are writing 240 cities in a dozen states to urge them to repeal their bans — or possibly risk litigation, said Eric Tars, a senior attorney with the Law Center.

Panhandling bans don’t hold up in court, Tars said. “We have this 100 percent strike-down rate in the courts. Despite that, many communities continue to have these ordinances on the book and enforce them. And many other communities are passing new laws that are clearly unconstitutional.”

Tars said the Law Center will target more communities with panhandling laws over the next year.

The groups are basing their campaign on a 2015 Supreme Court decision that struck down a town’s ordinance imposing content-based restrictions on signs. Homeless rights advocates have used the decision’s free speech impacts to successfully fight panhandling bans in 25 cities, according to the Law Center. Another 31 cities have repealed their panhandling laws.

As cities revitalize their downtown districts, there’s been an uptick in anti-panhandling laws over the past few years.

Other cities have laws that ban camping in public, sleeping or sitting in public, or sleeping in vehicles. Other cities have passed laws forbidding feeding the homeless in public places.

Advocates say these laws criminalize behavior homeless people use to survive. Proponents argue these laws aren’t designed to hurt the homeless.

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.