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found these restrictions to violate the freedom of speech, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and dozens of other cities have repealed laws restricting panhandling in public places since 2015.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.

St. Louis – A Heartless City

What happened to St. Louis' moral compass? St. Louis has become a vile, corrupt, cruel, heartless, racist, and violent city. Collectively, we should be ashamed.

Next week, a group of millionaires is asking the City of St. Louis to vote for a sales tax increase to give them $60 million so they can build a soccer stadium that will further enrich them. 

Three days before that election, a homeless shelter that has served St. Louis' homeless population for four decades is being forced to close. 

When millionaires beg, we hold elections when the poor and homeless beg we get offended and pass ordinances to prevent them from begging. When the billionaire owner of the Rams wanted to leave St. Louis, we spent $16 million dollars trying to give him money he didn't even want. 

As Rev. Larry Rice mentioned, the homeless people he serves come because they were turned away from other shelters and have nowhere else to go. The video below serves as a reminder about the basic respect we owe to one another.

I'm not a particularly religious person, the bible verse below is an additional reminder to treat each person, no matter their station in life or circumstances, with basic humanity. Matthew 25:40-45, English Standard Version (ESV).

  1. And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[a] you did it to me.’
  2. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
  3. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
  4. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
  5. Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’
  6. Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

What's Your Special Talent?

Do you have an extraordinary skill or talent? If not, you might be the next victim of heartlessness.

New and emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Autonomous Vehicles, Robotics, 3D Printing and other innovations will continue to strip away jobs. A few years ago, it was predicted that by the year 2025, half of all jobs will be eliminated by automation. Your job may not be as safe as you think. 

My wife and I were both unemployed at the same time. Legal research skills helped us defend against predatory creditors and lawsuits. Otherwise, my family, years ago, could have been counted among the millions of people who became homeless during the financial crisis of 2008, which is still affecting families today. AI is now performing some functions of doctors, lawyers and other professions that were previous assumed immune from technology.

A 2015 report by the PEW Charitable Trust, “The Precious State of Family Balance Sheets,” indicates that the majority of American households (55 percent) are savings-limited, meaning they can replace less than one month of their income through liquid savings.

Low-income families are particularly unprepared for emergencies. The typical household at the bottom of the income ladder has the equivalent of less than two weeks’ worth of income in checking and savings accounts and cash at home.

Despite the studies like the PEW report, the majority of people still believe in the myths concerning homelessness: that most homeless individuals are alcoholics, drug addicts, thieves or mentally unstable. The homeless often are your former neighbors and under the right circumstances could one day be you!

Homeless Rights

Use of the law that criminalizes the homeless generally takes on one of five forms:

  1. Restricting the public areas in which sitting or sleeping are allowed.
  2. Removing the homeless from particular areas.
  3. Prohibiting begging.
  4. Selective enforcement of laws.
  5. Selective creation of laws.

Being homeless is not a crime. People should not be penalized because of their misfortune or by exercising their basic right to survive which might include begging or sleeping outside.

The United States Supreme Court implied an aggressive begging ordinance unconstitutional in Thayer v. City of Worcester. The ordinances prohibited “aggressive begging, soliciting and panhandling in public places.” (Under the ordinances’ definition, virtually all begging would be viewed as aggressive.)

The ordinances also created twenty-foot buffer zones throughout the city that prohibited activities from handing out leaflets to selling newspapers to selling Girl Scout cookies. The zones also covered all the most desirable areas to sell a product or deliver a message.

The court declared the City of Worcester’s ordinances regarding begging, soliciting and panhandling unconstitutional in their entirety and also declared unconstitutional that part of the ordinance regarding the restriction the ordinance placed on activities on traffic islands.

St. Louis City has a similar aggressive begging ordinance 15.44, that may also be unconstitutional.

In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an attempt to ban the display of content-based outdoor signs without a permit.

$60 Million in Public Money For a Soccer Stadium? NO!

Yesterday, St. Louis MLS owners and the City of St. Louis announce charitable partnerships. How insulting! Bribing us with our own money? 

If the voters approve giving millionaires $60 million dollars of public money, those millionaires will give the voters $5 million of their own money back over a 20 year period ($250,000 per year). There were allegations of corruption during the previous stadium proposal. St. Louis, if you give me $60 million, I'll give $10 million back, and actually do some good with it; how's that for a great deal? 

I played soccer recreationally when I was younger, but nothing organized or for an actual team. When my family moved back into the City of St. Louis, my youngest son attended Lexington Elementary school which had a soccer program that he played in which I believe was funded by a sports or soccer foundation. I like soccer and I certainly do not have a problem with professional soccer returning to St. Louis. However, there are plenty of better ways to spend $60 million dollars than on a soccer stadium that the City would have no ownership interest in. St. Louis already owns a stadium and an arena and should maintain those properly before spending money on someone else's stadium.

The City has much more urgent problems than trying to fund a soccer stadium. The City of St. Louis has one of the highest homicide rates in the country and just recently, a man died after being shot at the Busch Stadium Metro Link stop. Public money needs to be spent on public problems.

Here's my idea for that money. Contact Habitat for Humanity, Rankin, Larry Rice and other organizations involved with the homeless. Every time I go downtown to the St. Louis Public Library, City Hall, Municipal or Circuit Court buildings, you can't help be see the tragic sight of homeless people with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

St. Louis homeless encampment downtown on Locust near 15th street.

According to the 2015 homeless census, there were more than 1,300 homeless people in St. Louis City alone. If I had not developed legal skills, I and my family might have been among them when both my wife and I lost our jobs. Computerization, artificial intelligence, and robotics will take away half of all jobs in the United States, and that estimate might be low. In the future, it won't be an immigrant taking away your job, it will be a computer or a robot. How many paychecks are you away from being homeless? 

Crews of homeless can be trained with the skills to rehab city-owned homes. As those homes are rehabbed, some of the homeless people that participated in the rehab can use sweat equity earned towards rent or home ownership. For example, a rehabbed three bedroom home can house a homeless family or three single men or women each with their own room. They could continue using sweat equity to pay rent while building additional skills that will eventually lead to employment and being able to pay actual rent. 

Once place in sweat equity housing, those new tenants could put those new skills to use as part of a revitalization crew. Those revitalization crews would perform maintenance projects in the neighborhoods where they are placed. Cleaning up vacant lots and properties, planting and maintaining urban gardens, assisting with repairs to the homes of elderly, disabled and low-income homeowners.

The homeless population benefits from learning and applying new skills, meaningful employment and the prospect of a decent place to live. The neighborhood benefits from having vacant city-owned property being put back into good use, neighborhood improvement projects and sources of nutritious neighborhood grown produce. 

Once some of the formerly homeless individuals have been stabilized, they would receive assistance with Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) paperwork and applications to attend St. Louis Community College, Rankin or other trade schools. 

This is just one example of how I would spend $60 million and how public money can and should be spent. However, public money should never be spent simply to make rich men richer. When you hear politicians fighting hard to give your tax money to rich men, you need to replace those politicians with others who fight hard to make your tax dollars enrich your community rather than individuals.

Homeless being Targeted at New Life

Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday season are less than two weeks away, so I was shocked when I saw the headline, "Please don't give to panhandlers, St. Patrick Center pleads, in response to overdoses downtown". It seemed ironic that St. Patrick Center which is part of Catholic Charities would recommend not giving directly to those in need.

There are more the 1,300 homeless people in the City of St. Louis. According to a biannual federal survey, in the United States, 1.49 million people used homeless shelters and 578,424 were recorded  as being without shelter: sleeping on the streets, in tents, in cars, and other exposed places. Had I not been able to research the law and act as my own attorney after a job loss, my family might have been included in those numbers. Most Americans are one or two paychecks away from homelessness.

Another organization, the New Life Evangelistic Center has provided meals, clothing, shelter and other services to the poor and homeless in St. Louis since 1972, but the city revoked their occupancy permit after Downtown residents complained. However, when those residents moved into their lofts or apartments, New Life had been there for decades. Since Monday to over 100 calls for downtown overdoses have been centered around New Life, even though there are two other homeless centers, St. Patrick and Biddle House located downtown. Common sense would lead any reasonable person to assume someone is targeting the homeless population around New Life and passing out tainted product, possible to justify closing New Life. The city even pointed to an ordinance that shelters can't be located near a school, but the school in question opened just a few years ago, maybe the city shouldn't have authorized the new school so close to the shelter. 

Unfortunately, homeless services do not fully meet the needs and some people are forced to ask for assistance on the streets. I have personally called the St. Louis homeless hotline for some homeless people, only to be told there wasn't any available space at that time. So if a person can't receive services from an organization and can't ask for help on the street, what are they supposed to do? With winter coming, downtown residents should consider that the homeless can use the necessity defense to justify breaking into private property to protect themselves from the elements.

Instead of just telling people not to give money to panhandlers, I wish the St. Patrick Center would have provided tips how to help, other than simply donating money to organizations such as theirs. See "35 Ways to Help the Homeless" and "5 Things You Should Never Do When a Homeless Person Asks For Money". 

The City should have worked with New Life instead of forcing them to close. Their location at 1411 Locust, is near to the main library providing access to computers and other resources, city government, courts, St. Louis University's Legal Clinic, the social security office and near multiple bus lines. However, the trend seems to be to place homeless shelters and halfway houses in struggling neighborhoods with little or no resources. City hall then pretends to be puzzled why crime rates in certain areas are high. New Life seems to be one of those rare organizations that truly genuinely helps people rather than being just another poverty pimp organization.