Criminalizing the Poor: The Ugly Rise of Panhandling Bans
An ugly trend is developing in Colorado communities—a series of panhandling or no-solicitation ordinances designed to silence the poor and homeless and push them into other communities. Despite a victory by the ACLU of Colorado against one of these ordinances in Colorado Springs last year, new attempts have popped up in locations such as Grand Junction, Boulder, Pueblo, and Centennial.
Panhandling bans are often proposed under the guise of public safety, but the ACLU does not oppose legitimate public safety laws curtailing aggressive or threatening behavior. The real intent of these ordinances generally goes much further, hoping to push the homeless from view and hide uncomfortable reminders of extreme poverty in our communities.
The poor are often the first to lose civil liberties, but the Supreme Court has upheld requests for charity as a form of speech, and people do not lose their rights of free speech because they are homeless or poor. It is simply unconstitutional to single out groups of people we don’t like and deny their right to hold a sign quietly or ask for help peaceably.
Often, in an attempt to appear even-handed, these bans are written in a way that would apply to street musicians and Salvation Army bell-ringers, newspaper hawkers and Girl Scout cookie-sellers, advertisers and fund raisers, and sometimes protestors, petition-gatherers or advocates of all kinds. Quickly, it becomes apparent how problematic these ordinances really are.
We should remember that the intended targets of these ordinances, the homeless, are real people with real needs. Among them are veterans and mothers with children, people seeking jobs, people with disabilities or needing mental health care, and people who lost a place to live through bank foreclosure or the Colorado floods last September. Trying to push the homeless out of one location only increases the problem of homelessness in other locations. Far better to face the real issues and address real needs.
The ACLU of Colorado will continue to uphold rights of free speech and other civil liberties for all people in Colorado, including the poor, the homeless, and those targeted as undesirable by communities wishing they would just go somewhere else.