Colorado Rights Blog

ACLU of Colorado By: ACLU of Colorado 2.28.2014

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.

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  • On November 21, 2016, 13 Aurora police officers responded to a simple noise complaint at Alberto Torres’s home. As happens all too often, Aurora police officers escalated this minor issue into a brutal affair. They beat Mr. Torres solely because he delayed exiting his garage to ask his wife to interpret for him. With that beating, the lives of Mr. Torres and every member of his family were changed and he has yet to recover. ACLU of Colorado fought to obtain justice for Mr. Torres, and Aurora has now paid him $285,000. But money is not justice, and the brutality of the Aurora Police Department against people of color has continued unabated.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

    Imagine, if instead of 13 officers being dispatched to Mr. Torres’s home for a noise complaint, the City of Aurora sent a civilian-led response team to check on his welfare and ask that he and his friends lower their sound, resulting in a non-violent solution to a minor issue?

    ACLU Settles Case With Aurora After Police Brutalize and Unlawfully Arrest Alberto Torres

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    In the midst of this public health crisis, incarcerated people as vulnerable as Anthony, could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.

    Read more about Anthony Martinez and other at-risk incarcerated people. 

  • Ronald Johnson is pre-diabetic, suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, and regularly uses an inhaler to breathe. His age and respiratory ailments put him at risk of serious illness and death if he contracts COVID-19. With over hundreds of active cases in Colorado’s prisons, his family fears he will not make it out alive. His daughter, Amber, says, “In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social distance. My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”

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    Read more about Ronald Johnson and other at-risk incarcerated people.