Poverty and panhandling

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Panhandling laws.

Many U.S. cities in the 1990s began to ban panhandling — at least in part. Cities feared panhandlers would attract crime and turn off tourists.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: After the Great Recession began, many more cities started to limit panhandling. The number of cities with outright bans increased by a quarter between 2011 and 2014. The number of cities with partial bans— by 20 percent.

REICHARD: But in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to limit laws that regulate speech based on content. Since then, panhandling advocates have succeeded in getting over two dozen anti-panhandling ordinances thrown out as violations of free speech.

Now advocates are challenging ordinances in hundreds of cities. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has this report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: It’s a cold winter day near Twin Falls, Idaho. And Tom Walker has been standing at an exit off Interstate 84 for the past hour. His gloved hands hold a sign that says, “Anything Helps!”

WALKER: I’ll do good if I make $200 a week and that’s just enough to get by.

Walker is a panhandler, and he says this is an ideal place to stand.

WALKER: Actually this here is really a kind of a safe place to be because most of it I hardly ever have to go into the traffic. And this is a good here because uh, I’m on the driver’s side. A lot of people don’t like to reach over.

Walker says this spot is also nice because police and business owners don’t bother him. One time, a policeman ticketed him $120 for panhandling. How did he pay it back?

WALKER: Panhandling. I paid for it in $1 bills.

Over the last three years, panhandlers and homeless advocates have pushed for cities to allow panhandlers like Tom Walker to solicit anywhere. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is challenging restrictions in 240 cities in more than a dozen states.

Joseph Mead is a law professor at Cleveland State University. Last year, he helped the ACLU of Ohio challenge anti-panhandling laws in 69 Ohio cities.

MEAD: So every once in a while a city will say, well, we don’t want panhandlers to exist anywhere in our city. And that’s just a flat ban on protected speech. Other cities have more tailored  approaches. They say, okay, you cannot panhandle near an intersection or you cannot panhandle near bus stops.

As a result of the ACLU’s work in Ohio, Mead estimates 20 cities have repealed their panhandling laws.

MEAD: We pointed out that, hey, look, these laws are regularly struck down by court. There’s no real reasonable argument that they’re going to survive a constitutional challenge.

Mead insists cities use panhandling bans to hide poverty, and that policing panhandlers burdens already poor people with fines and arrest records.

But cities argue some ordinances around panhandling are necessary. For instance, laws that ban aggressive panhandling or panhandling in high traffic areas.

In 2017, Houston passed a law that restricts solicitors from impeding a roadway, sidewalk, or doorway.

Marc Eichenbaum works on homeless initiatives as a special assistant to Houston’s mayor. Eichenbaum says the city focuses on protecting panhandlers.

EICHENBAUM: There’s been lots of issues regarding public safety of individuals who are in the roadways, creating dangerous circumstances, not just for vehicular traffic, but also for those, for those people themselves.

But the National Law Center for Homelessness & Poverty and the ACLU say that infringes on free speech. They filed a joint lawsuit against the city over the law. It’s still working its way through federal court.

Reverend Andy Bales is CEO of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. He agrees panhandling bans don’t work. But he says the public needs to understand that giving money to panhandlers is usually not the best way to help them.

BALES: The best thing I can do is say, can I buy you lunch? And I’d like to hear your story and I’d like to try to connect you to resources. That’s the best approach. Giving money doesn’t guarantee really helping someone.

Back on the side of the road, Tom Walker says most people hand him money and roll up their windows. But if someone did take time to speak with him, they’d learn he actually has a camper and two trucks. But says he doesn’t have a job because his bad knees only let him stand for about two hours a day.

WALKER: I’m kind of stuck here.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Twin Falls, Idaho.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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