The New York Times
October 5, 2012
Homeless Are Fighting Back Against Panhandling Bans
By DAN FROSCH
COLORADO SPRINGS — Panhandlers, with their crumpled signs, coffee cups and pleas, are as customary a sight in many American towns and cities as Starbucks or McDonald’s. But for one Utah homeless man, the right to ask people for money has become a personal legal crusade.
Steve Ray Evans, who uses a sign to ask drivers for money, has been successfully suing Utah cities that have cited him for panhandling, arguing that his right to free speech is being violated by a state statute that bans soliciting near roadways.
“This is my only source of income,” said Mr. Evans, 54, whose sign reads “Starving Please Help!” “I do it for survival purposes. I feel as though a lot of other individuals depend on it, too.”
Mr. Evans said he had received more than 50 panhandling citations, and cases like his have become increasingly common of late. With the downturn in the economy, cities across the country have been cracking down on an apparent rise in aggressive panhandling, while advocates for the homeless and civil liberties groups contend that sweeping bans on begging go too far.
According to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that examined 188 cities, there was a 7 percent increase in prohibitions on begging or panhandling between 2009 and 2011.
“Our sense is that cities are responding to the increasing number of chronically or visibly homeless people due to the economic crisis,” said Heather Maria Johnson, a civil rights lawyer for the group. “Rather than addressing the issue of homelessness, they are adapting measures that move homeless people out of downtowns, tourist areas or even out of a city.”
Case law on the issue has varied over the years, and local panhandling laws differ widely. But several recent legal decisions have favored the homeless.
Last January, after Mr. Evans’s initial lawsuit, Salt Lake City agreed to stop enforcing the state statute.
But Utah fought the suit, arguing that panhandling near roads was dangerous. A federal judge sided with Mr. Evans in March, ruling that the statute was unconstitutional. In June, the City of Draper agreed to stop enforcing the ordinance after Mr. Evans filed suit there as well.
After a lawsuit filed by a homeless man and a disabled veteran who were arrested on panhandling charges in Grand Rapids, Mich., a federal judge ruled in August that the state’s blanket ban on public begging also violated the First Amendment. Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, has appealed, arguing that begging is not protected speech.
In many cases, the dispute over panhandling centers on whether a city’s efforts to criminalize aggressive begging to protect pedestrians and businesses ends up overreaching.
After the Northern California city of Arcata passed an ordinance banning panhandling in 2010, a local resident, Richard Salzman, sued in State Superior Court in Humboldt County.
Mr. Salzman, 53, an agent for commercial illustrators, said he had no problem with Arcata’s efforts to curb aggressive panhandling. But he objected to the city — long known for its liberal leanings — also prohibiting panhandling that was not necessarily threatening on its face, like merely asking for money within 20 feet of the entrance to a store or restaurant.
“I don’t know how much more passive you can be than standing there silently holding a sign,” he said. “This is a slippery slope we don’t want to go down.”
Last month, Judge Dale A. Reinholtsen ruled that Arcata’s law was indeed too broad and struck down most provisions that prohibited all panhandling in specific locations.
“The court finds that the legitimate interests advanced by Arcata with respect to the targeted panhandling prohibition are insufficient in most instances to justify the infringement of solicitors’ speech rights,” Judge Reinholtsen wrote in his opinion.
In Colorado Springs, city officials are weighing a panhandling ban for a commercial section of downtown, after merchants complained that begging was interfering with business.
“What they have told us is that the persistent sort of solicitation by people who just camp out in front of stores every day downtown has really discouraged tourists, shoppers and families from coming downtown,” said City Attorney Chris Melcher.
Mr. Melcher acknowledged that there could well be a legal challenge if the ordinance is approved. But he said the city, which already bans aggressive panhandling, was committed to drafting a law that would avoid prohibiting lawful speech.
On a blustery Thursday morning in Colorado Springs, Turtle Dean, a 36-year-old homeless man, said that he did not think the proposed ban was fair.
“I only ask for money for stuff that I need to survive. Clothes and food,” said Mr. Dean, who panhandles downtown and vowed to continue begging, ban or not.
The most recent suit by Mr. Evans, who is being represented by a lawyer with the Utah Civil Rights and Liberties Foundation, was filed last month against the City of American Fork, where he was recently cited for panhandling.
While city officials consider whether to fight the suit, American Fork has agreed not to pursue the charges against him for now and to temporarily stop enforcing the statute.
Mayor James H. Hadfield said Mr. Evans had been cited because he was panhandling in a construction zone and people had complained.
“I have nothing against Mr. Evans or people who do these types of activities and use common sense,” he said. “We react to people’s complaints. We are not on a witch hunt.”