Category Archives: Homelessness

Most panhandling laws are unconstitutional since there’s no freedom from speech

The City of St. Louis has an aggressive panhandling ordinance, 67918, which defines "aggressive panhandling" as approaching a person in a way that would make them feel threatened, persisting in panhandling when given a negative response, or to touch, block, or follow a person when panhandling. The ordinance makes it llegal to panhandle in the following places:

(1) In any public transportation vehicle;
(2) Within 50 feet of an automatic teller machine or entrance to a bank;
(3) Within 30 feet of a point of entry to or exit from any building open to the public, including commercial establishments;
(4) At any sidewalk café;
(5) Within 50 feet of any public or private school;
(6) At any bus stop, train stop, or cab stand;
(7) Within 20 feet of any crosswalk;
(8) Within any municipal or government owned building, park, golf course, or playground.

File 20180305 146675 14d5m7n.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Derek Cote, a homeless man, panhandling in the median strip on a street in Portland, Maine. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty


By Joseph W. Mead, Cleveland State University

Thousands of U.S. cities restrict panhandling in some way. These ordinances limit face-to-face soliciting, including interactions that occur on sidewalks and alongside roads, whether they are verbal or involve holding a sign.

According to a growing string of court decisions, however, laws that outlaw panhandling are themselves illegal. In light of rulings that found these restrictions to violate the freedom of speech, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and dozens of other cities have repealed laws restricting panhandling in public places since 2015.

As a professor of law and urban studies, I study how local ordinances can harm the poor, particularly people experiencing homelessness. I volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union and other nonprofits to help fight for more equitable local policies. And I have brought together nonprofits and individuals to successfully change unconstitutional anti-panhandling laws across Ohio, my home state.

Charitable solicitations

Over the past 30 years, cities have increasingly adopted laws to reduce or eliminate panhandling. Although a few jurisdictions simply ban panhandling outright, most ban the practice in certain areas, such as parks, near roads or near bus stops. Cities also regulate what they call “aggressive solicitation” – a term defined broadly to include behavior like asking for a donation twice, in pairs, or after sunset – on the basis that it can make passersby feel physically threatened or vulnerable to mugging.

The First Amendment protects everything from distributing pornography to waving hateful signs outside military funerals. So it is should not be surprising that it also protects fundraising pitches of all kinds.

In a trilogy of opinions issued in the 1980s, the Supreme Court struck down several state laws that restricted charitable solicitation, including laws that prohibited requests from nonprofits that, according to regulators, spent too much money on fundraising.

In ruling against charitable solicitation limits, the justices established two important precedents. First, charitable solicitation is constitutionally protected speech.

Second, local and state authorities can’t dictate which causes may or may not solicit donations within their borders. A regulator’s paternalistic belief that a cause is unwise or inefficient is not a valid reason to limit speech seeking support for it. The listeners can make that decision for themselves.

Panhandling is a basic form of charitable solicitation with a long history. Almsgiving dates back to the days of ancient Greece and the Bible.

Instead of asking for help on behalf of an animal shelter, food pantry or any other kind of nonprofit, the panhandlers ask for help satisfying their own personal need. In case after case, the courts have clearly ruled that the Constitution safeguards the right to make personal pitches the same way that it protects the ability of organizations to make their own asks.

‘Beggars at a Doorway,’ a Flemish painting possibly made by Abraham Willemsens in the 1650s. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The public square

The First Amendment guarantees free speech in public spaces like sidewalks, streets and parks. This freedom is extremely broad but is not without limits.

Even constitutionally protected speech can be somewhat regulated in public areas if the government can justify the restriction. Only rarely, however, can the government restrict protected speech in public spaces based on what is being said, as the Supreme Court reminded us in a 2015 ruling on street signs.

Governments primarily try to justify their restrictions on panhandling by saying they benefit most passersby, who consider expressions of poverty and desperation a nuisance, and nearby businesses, which fear losing customers.

But there’s no freedom from speech, as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in McCullen v. Coakley, a 2014 case about the rights of protesters to congregate near abortion clinics. The fact that someone within earshot cannot “turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site” to avoid hearing a message they don’t like is “a virtue, not a vice,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.

A panhandling sign spotted in San Francisco. BrokenSphere, CC BY-SA

Down and out but not silent

No panhandling bans have made it to the Supreme Court. But in recent years, all lower courts ruling on this issue have found that laws imposing restrictions on sidewalk and roadside solicitation are unconstitutional.

While cities have some legitimate public safety concerns, focusing on a category of speech misses the point. It is at once too broad and too narrow, covering innocent behavior that isn’t threatening and missing much behavior that is problematic.

Instead, cities remain free to regulate problematic behaviors directly, such as prosecuting suspected cases of assault and trespassing or making blocking the sidewalk illegal.

Even better, they can try harder to meet the needs of people who are seeking help rather than attempting to silence them. Portland, Maine, for example, is now hiring panhandlers to clean up public spaces after the courts threw out its restrictive ordinance.

Despite the spate of legal precedents, plenty of these laws remain on the books. Advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging anti-panhandling laws in Albuquerque, Houston and other places that still enforce this kind of law.

The ConversationWith these measures on their way out, cities now have a good chance to refocus their energies on helping, rather than arresting, their homeless residents.

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

The hidden homelessness among America’s high school students

One in 30.

That’s what a new first-of-its-kind study found was the number of students ages 13 to 17 who have experienced homelessness in the past year. The figure represents about 700,000 young people nationwide.

When a student is homeless in high school, it can cause high levels of stress and anxiety. While other students are able to focus on getting good grades and planning for college, students who are homeless often worry about basic necessities, such as food, clothing and shelter.

In 2016, James Edwards, right, poses with fellow residents at the Plymouth Crossroads youth homeless residence in Lancaster, N.Y., as he prepares to leave for college. Edwards finished high school while homeless.

In order to turn things around and help homeless students succeed and have a decent shot at college, school counselors should be seen as our first line of support. I say that based on years of experience as a researcher who has focused on the critical role that school counselors play in helping low-income and first-generation college students make it to college.

Unfortunately, what I have found through my research is that school counselors often feel helpless despite their desire to help students who are experiencing homelessness. They also feel underprepared to support the needs of such students. With increased preparation and knowledge on homelessness, school counselors would be in a much better position to help homeless students succeed.

School counselors may meet homeless students’ basic needs by collecting school supplies, clothing or food items for students in need. This can be done by coordinating community or school donation programs, collecting monetary donations from the community, or applying for grants through the Department of Education. They may also identify resources in the community and collaborate with stakeholders, such as social workers and teachers to form a supportive system. But my research has found that school counselors often lack knowledge about students who are homeless, and have limited training to support their needs. This in turn puts the educational future of students experiencing homelessness in jeopardy.

One of the reasons homeless students can be difficult to identify is because homelessness is often thought of as individuals living on the street or in a shelter. The reality is that homelessness can also take many other forms. In fact, the federal definition of homelessness includes those who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes individuals and families who are living with others due to a loss of housing, often referred to as “doubling up.” Those living in shelters or locations such as motels, hotels, trailer parks or campgrounds because they lack other consistent housing options may also be considered homeless. Individuals who are under 18 and living without a parent or guardian and lack consistent housing are considered “unaccompanied homeless youth.” Through having a clear understanding of the various definitions, school counselors can identify students experiencing homelessness quickly and educate others so that if there is a housing loss, students can be provided with the supports they need.

Counselor contact is critical

Research indicates that students from low-income backgrounds are more likely go to college after they graduate when they have a series of contacts with their school counselors, as opposed to seeing their counselor only once. Unfortunately, my work suggests that school counselors are often forced to focus on meeting homeless students’ basic needs. This leads counselors to offer homeless students the kind of general college support that they would give all students. Consequently, many counselors may neglect the highly specialized college planning needs of students who are homeless. Further, one report suggests that although school counselors are in a position to positively impact students’ career and college readiness, they need more extensive graduate and in-service training on college and career counseling.

Generally speaking, students who are homeless face emotional distress in the form of anxiety or low self-esteem and lower academic achievement. School can be a place of consistency that can support their postsecondary planning, but only if schools are mindful of the unique needs of high school students experiencing homelessness. Schools must provide individualized support that focuses on enhancing students’ expectations of college attendance and their belief in their ability to attend.

When they are identified, students experiencing homelessness can be supported through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The federal law includes provisions meant to remove barriers, such as by providing transportation for students who move out of a district because they became homeless. It also allows for quick enrollment for students experiencing homelessness regardless of the required paperwork, and funding for programming such as academic support or afterschool programs. It also allows for a local liaison to ensure students are identified and receiving supports they need. Further, when McKinney-Vento was recently revised under the Every Student Succeeds Act, it specifically stated that school counselors and local liaisons must provide “individualized” college support for students who are homeless. But ultimately, the federal law by itself won’t do anything to help students experiencing homelessness. It’s all about how well the law is executed at the school level.

Information is crucial

Schools should also include information about McKinney-Vento and college planning that would be directly beneficial to homeless youth on their websites. Unfortunately, few schools are doing so.

Schools can also develop systems of support in the community to support homeless students’ basic needs. This will allow them more time to focus on other things, such as college planning.

When providing college advisement, counselors must determine things such as whether students need campus housing during breaks, if the school has affordable meal plans and if the university has support systems in place for additional counseling, advising, mentoring or tutoring. Directing students to apply to universities that are a good fit will help them to be more successful.

With intentional planning, schools can be a resource for students experiencing homelessness that helps them to stay on track, graduate and go on to college. But if we continue to neglect the specific needs of homeless students, we run the risk of consigning them to lives of uncertainty and placing their college dreams further out of reach.

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation

St. Louis May be Violating 8th Amendment Rights of the homeless

According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the City of St. Louis is forcing homeless people in tents near the Biddle House, the City's Homeless shelter, to move.

The City plans to seize tents and any other property of the homeless on October 27 at 10 am per a notice. 

The City of St. Louis has a history of attacking people at their weakest moment. Kicking a man when he's down, defies basic humanitarian code of ethics, and detract from the reputation of the City. A homeless man in St. Louis explains how he ended up on the street and talks about what it's like to be homeless.

Constitutional Violations

The City of St. Louis may be violating the 8th amendment which states, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." In a similar case, Bell v. City of Boise, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest (SOI) arguing that, where shelter space is unavailable, compliance with these ordinances has become impossible for the homeless, such that their “enforcement . . . amounts to the criminalization of homelessness, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” 

Writing for the DOJ, Civil Rights Division Attorney Sharon Brett noted, “When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

In 2006, the Boise City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting “disorderly conduct,” which was defined to include, among other things, sleeping in public without the permission of the owner or person in control of the space. In 2009, it passed another ordinance criminalizing “camping” — “the use of public property as a temporary or permanent place of dwelling . . . or as a living accommodation at any time between sunset and sunrise . . . .” That same year, several individuals who either were or had been homeless in Boise and who had been cited or arrested for violating one or both of these ordinances,  filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho. They alleged that the City’s enforcement of the Camping and Sleeping Ordinances against the homeless violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The DOJ urged the court to adopt the reasoning of Jones v. City of Los Angeles, where the Ninth Circuit held unconstitutional the enforcement of a Los Angeles ordinance that criminalized sitting, lying, or sleeping in public when there was inadequate shelter space. The Boise case was dismissed on standing grounds but it continues to have a profound impact on the criminalization of homelessness and particularly on the enforcement of camping bans by local municipalities.

The City of St. Louis does not have adequate space to house the homeless and recently forced the closure of New Life Evangelistic Center which provided homeless shelter for decades. The City of St. Louis is probably creating and enforcing ordinances that illegally infringe on the constitutional rights of homeless people. It's just a matter of time before someone files a federal lawsuit against the City.

It's time we got serious about pulling our money out of incarceration and putting it into systems that foster healthy communities. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked up not because of any dangerous behavior, but because of problems like mental illness, substance use disorders, and homelessness, which should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system. Services like drug treatment and affordable housing cost less and can have a better record of success.

See what happened when two Rams football players spent 24 hours homeless in St. Louis.

Housing First

Instead of criminalizing behavior necessary for survival, maybe the City of St. Louis could adopt a house first model that focuses on providing housing.  Housing First is an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements. Other cities have found it's much cheaper to provide housing than to criminalize the homeless. The State of Utah reduced its homeless population by 91% by implementing housing first and saved money in the process.