Wis­con­sin ACLU de­fends pan­han­dling as free speech

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Lisa Neff Staff writer

Brother, can you spare a tweet?

Sis­ter, can you share a text?

Lead­ers in the na­tional Hous­ing Not Hand­cuffs Cam­paign to re­peal bans on pan­han­dling — in­clud­ing eight pro­hi­bi­tions in Wis­con­sin — are en­cour­ag­ing grass­roots ac­tivism.

They want peo­ple to op­pose pan­han­dling bans in let­ters to lo­cal gov­ern­ments, as well as on so­cial me­dia, spread­ing these mes­sages:

Ev­ery­one has the right to ask for help. Pan­han­dling bans are costly. Pan­han­dling bans do not work. Pan­han­dling bans are un­con­sti­tu­tional. Cities should in­vest in hous­ing and ser­vices, not ci­ta­tions or de­ten­tions.

“Peo­ple pan­han­dle when they lack other op­tions,” said Tim Muth, staff at­tor­ney for the ACLU of Wis­con­sin. “Most of the time, peo­ple resort to pan­han­dling be­cause they need to feed them­selves, to pay the rent, or get bus fare.”

Most so­cial ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions don’t agree. They say pan­han­dling fails to ad­dress poverty.

Still, the ACLU of Wis­con­sin has joined with other groups to ad­vance the ini­tia­tive through le­gal chan­nels. On Aug. 28, the state ACLU sent let­ters de­mand­ing re­peal to of­fi­cials in eight Wis­con­sin mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties: Al­toona, Glen­dale, Me­quon, Racine, Su­pe­rior, Shore­wood, Wauke­sha and Wauwatosa.

“These Wis­con­sin com­mu­ni­ties that have crim­i­nal­ized the act of beg­ging add in­sult to the in­juries that those in poverty have of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced,” said Chris Ott, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the ACLU of Wis­con­sin. “These cities should take these un­con­sti­tu­tional laws off the books and in­stead look for more con­struc­tive ways to ad­dress the needs of our fel­low ci­ti­zens ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness and poverty.”

The ACLU of Wis­con­sin, with its de­mand let­ters, joined 18 other or­ga­ni­za­tions in tar­get­ing more than 240 or­di­nances.

“No one wants to see poor peo­ple have to beg for money,” Eric Tars, se­nior at­tor­ney at the Na­tional Law Cen­ter on Home­less­ness & Poverty, stated in a news re­lease. “But un­til all their ba­sic needs — food, health care and hous­ing — are met, they have the right to ask for help.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 ruled in Reed v. Town of Gil­bert that if an or­di­nance reg­u­lates speech dif­fer­ently based on its con­tent it is sub­ject to the strictest level of re­view and not likely to be de­ter­mined con­sti­tu­tional. An ex­am­ple used in ar­gu­ments against pan­han­dling or­di­nances is this: How is ask­ing some­one on the street for a do­na­tion il­le­gal but ask­ing for di­rec­tions is al­lowed?

Since the 2015 rul­ing, anti-pan­han­dling or­di­nances have fallen in all 25 le­gal chal­lenges in the United States.

Also, at least 31 cities have re­pealed or­di­nances with lan­guage sim­i­lar to the mu­nic­i­pal bans in Wis­con­sin.

The Na­tional Law Cen­ter on Home­less­ness & Poverty, the Na­tional Coali­tion for the Home­less and more than 100 other or­ga­ni­za­tions launched the Hous­ing Not Hand­cuffs Cam­paign in 2016 to em­pha­size that crim­i­nal­iz­ing home­less­ness is the most ex­pen­sive and least ef­fec­tive way of ad­dress­ing home­less­ness.

“Pun­ish­ing home­less peo­ple with fines, fees and ar­rests sim­ply for ask­ing for help will only pro­long their home­less­ness,” said Maria Foscari­nis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Na­tional Law Cen­ter on Home­less­ness & Poverty. “Hous­ing and ser­vices are the only true so­lu­tions to home­less­ness.”


For more, go to hous­ing­nothand­cuffs.org.

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