Gateway Cities preoccupied with panhandling
Towns say beggars are bad for business, public safety
IN NEW BEDFORD, the City Council considered requiring panhandlers to get licenses to ask for money in the city. Manchester, New Hampshire, banned the exchange of items of value between motorists and pedestrians. And Worcester and Lowell enacted ordinances aimed at cracking down on “aggressive panhandling,” which, among other things, banned soliciting in close proximity to ATMs and outdoor seating areas.
Cities in New England are hardly alone in trying to devise novel ways to clamp down on the age-old practice of public begging. A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found panhandling bans increased by 25 percent between 2011 and 2014—a reaction, some have argued, to more people being forced onto the streets as a result of the Great Recession.
The panhandling restrictions have proliferated despite the fact that the Supreme Court held more than three decades ago that asking for money in public is fundamentally protected by the First Amendment. Last year, the court went even further, finding that nearly any “content-based” restriction on public speech was unconstitutional.
That ruling doomed the Worcester and Lowell ordinances, and now the cities are battling an attempt by the American Civil Liberties Union to recover nearly $2 million in legal fees. The ACLU spearheaded the challenges to the anti-panhandling measures in Worcester and Lowell and others around the country.
The idea of taking a tough line toward panhandlers isn’t a new one. In 1879, the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of State Charities weighed in on what to do about “tramps.” He said: “Doubtless he chuckles in his ragged sleeve at the credulity of those from whom he receives aid. But if citizens everywhere would close their doors against him, and if the law were so amended as to shut him up for two years, this would deprive Massachusetts of its charms to him.”
The Commonwealth once had a “tramp law” that could send those who “rove about from place to place begging…without labor or visible means of support” to prison for up to six months.
While such draconian laws have fallen by the wayside, today’s debate hinges on a fundamentally similar question: whether panhandlers are deserving of compassion and charity or whether they’re dissolute scammers.
It’s the latter view that today seems to hold sway among many downtown business owners, the constituency that is often the most vocal in calling for crackdowns on panhandling.
“It’s had a drastic effect on my business. People tell me they don’t want to go to downtown Lowell because they’re being harassed by these people,” said Richard Rourke, the owner of Ricardo’s Cafe Trattoria, a cozy little restaurant on the edge of downtown Lowell. “I see them every single day. I live in downtown Lowell. To me it appears to be a ring of people; they get together in the morning, meet at the end of day, and gather the money in a pot and share it.”
These are the kinds of concerns city councilors cite when they propose anti-panhandling measures. “The ACLU is talking about the rights of panhandlers—what about the rights of a small businessperson?” says Lowell City Councilor Bill Samaras. “They’re fighting to survive.”
“It’s probably more noticeable because we’re smaller. Boston is such a big city, they sort of blend in,” Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said, referring to panhandlers. “We get calls about it; it’s something we have to address.”
Petty also noted that Boston has had a rule on its books for years barring soliciting in an “aggressive manner.” (The ordinance, however, appears to be rarely enforced.)
City officials often cite another compelling interest in crafting panhandling bans: public safety, particularly when it comes to soliciting along roadways and on medians, which have become popular turf in recent years.
One of Worcester’s two panhandling-related ordinances, which were adopted in early 2013, banned any person or group from standing in medians, except to cross the street. “I just don’t want anyone getting hurt or killed,” Petty said, a concern he said was underscored when a panhandler was struck and killed by a car last year.
By then, Worcester’s ordinances were tangled up in the courts, and six months later they would be declared unconstitutional.
For the ACLU, the panhandling issue goes to the heart of its mission, championing free speech even when it discomfits the general public. “A request for money expresses a view, which is a need for help, and it sometimes expresses that in profound ways,” says Matthew Segal, the legal director for the Massachusetts chapter of ACLU. “Compare it to campaign finance. If you’re a wealthy person and you want to express yourself by spending millions of dollars, the law is clear: that is speech. But if you’re a homeless person and want to express yourself by asking for one dollar, that’s not speech.”
Worcester won the early rounds in its battle with the ACLU, with a federal judge finding that the city had a “legitimate interest” in enacting its ordinances and that they fell within reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on public speech.
Then came the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling in Reed vs. the Town of Gilbert, Arizona, which focused on a church cited for violating a local zoning code that distinguished between political, ideological, and directional signs. When it comes to restricting speech in the public sphere, the court ruled, any laws that “target speech based on its communicative content are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.” In other words, if a police officer or government bureaucrat has to study a sign in order to determine whether it’s permissible, it’s probably unconstitutional. (This excludes longstanding limits on obscenity and “fighting words.”)
In light of the Reed ruling, Worcester’s ordinances were overturned, as was Lowell’s substantially similar ban on aggressive panhandling, which was enacted in early 2014.
In Lowell’s case, the judge zeroed in on a legal brief filed by an assistant city solicitor that may have been more notable for its colorful prose than legal soundness. The solicitor described panhandling as “a raucous alternative culture that for reasons of economic dependence—or in a different view, parasitism—must occupy the same geographic space as those mainstream souls who lack the ‘need’—or perhaps the chutzpah—to importune strangers for money.”
The judge was blunt: the “raucous presentation of the visions of alternative cultures in the public sphere is at the heart of the First Amendment.”
In May, city officials in Lowell convened a meeting of business owners, social service agency heads, and civic leaders to discuss next steps in dealing with the panhandling issue.
Some of the social service advocates said more needed to be done to reach out to panhandlers, to connect them to shelters and drug-treatment programs. (Such outreach has been a part of Worcester’s efforts since it enacted the panhandling ordinances.) But the nonprofit heads also cautioned against assuming that all panhandlers were homeless or were necessarily interested in signing up for assistance programs.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion about panhandlers versus people who go to a shelter, who may not have a place to go. For some, it’s a business,” said Yun-Ju Choi, the executive director of the Coalition for a Better Acre, which provides housing and other services in one of Lowell’s poorest neighborhoods. Choi, who was among the leaders who attended the May meeting at Lowell City Hall, added, “I think a lot of panhandlers use the money for drugs and alcohol.”
Lowell officials, for their part, aren’t ready to sit down and sing Kumbaya with the panhandlers. City Manager Kevin Murphy suggested that panhandlers could be cited for littering, and that surveillance cameras could be deployed to catch them in the act. Several councilors liked the idea of posting notices downtown discouraging people from giving to panhandlers and directing donations to collection boxes that could be set up near parking meters; the money would go to assistance programs.
Even without an ordinance, police have still been able to exert pressure on panhandlers. After a spike in complaints earlier this year, Lowell Police Deputy Superintendent Jonathan Webb said officers were able to use existing laws to encourage panhandlers to leave busy intersections. “We’ve had some major success,” Webb said at the May meeting.
The legal decisions against Lowell and Worcester have largely stopped in their tracks other communities that had been considering panhandling bans, including New Bedford and Lawrence. But this doesn’t mean police and city officials have made peace with the panhandlers.On a recent day, a young man named Josh Evans stood on a median strip of a busy intersection in Worcester, holding a sign describing himself as homeless. Even after the court rulings, of which he was aware, he says he still gets harassed and threatened with arrest. One officer, he says, recently told him to “piss off.” As for those who questioned how needy he really was, Evans gestured to his sign. “I don’t make this stuff up,” he said.
Ted Siefer is a New England-based journalist who has covered state and local government for a wide range of outlets. He currently resides in Lowell.