The American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to three Iowa cities last month claiming their anti-panhandling laws violate free speech.
Many U.S. cities prohibit panhandling, but critics like the ACLU claim these laws violate individuals’ First Amendment right to ask for help and unfairly criminalize the poor. The ACLU argues giving homeless people criminal records and fines they cannot pay can make it harder for them to find stable jobs and housing in the future.
The ACLU letters are part of a national wave of challenges to similar laws. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty started an initiative called Housing Not Handcuffs, designed to change policy to help the homeless.
“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said NLCHP Executive Director Maria Foscarinis.
But others argue panhandling itself can prolong an individual’s homelessness and keep them away from sustainable solutions to their situation.
A Houston initiative called Meaningful Change—Not Spare Change, organized by local faith leaders, non-profit groups, and the business community, is trying to educate citizens on the harm that can come from giving to panhandlers, while also raising money for a network of local organizations that provide permanent housing and supportive services to homeless individuals. “If a person can manage their homelessness by panhandling,” the initiative’s site states, “that is one more day that they will be homeless, rather than getting permanent help.” —Charissa Crotts