Courts Are Striking Back Against The Criminalization Of Homelessness

A disabled army vet who is homeless asks passersby for help in a tony area of Washington D.C. CREDIT: SHAWN DAVIS
A disabled army vet who is homeless asks passersby for help in a tony area of Washington D.C. CREDIT: SHAWN DAVIS

For the third time in as many months, a federal court has struck down a city’s panhandling ban for violating the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

The most recent case concerned an anti-panhandling ordinance in Grand Junction, Colorado, which outlawed “aggressive panhandling.” In a ruling handed down last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello declared that the law, which forbade panhandling after sunset and in a dozen locations around the city, was so broad that it impinged on constitutionally protected speech.

The Grand Junction ruling came on the heels of similar decrees from federal appellate courts in the Midwest and Northeast. In September, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an ordinance in Portland, Maine that prohibited individuals from panhandling at intersection medians, while an August decision from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional a Springfield, Illinois ordinance that prohibited panhandling in the downtown area.

Part of the reason for the surge in court rulings striking down panhandling bans is Reed v. Town of Gilbert, a Supreme Court case decided in June that struck down municipal regulations on the size, number, and location of signs a local church wanted to display. Following that decision, the Supreme Court vacated a lower court’s ruling upholding an anti-panhandling ordinance in Worcester, Massachusetts and ordered the case to be reconsidered in light of Reed.


“Panhandling is protected First Amendment speech,” Zachary L. Heiden, legal director for ACLU of Maine, the group that challenged Portland law, told ThinkProgress. In addition to Reed, Heiden pointed to the 1980 Supreme Court case of Village of Schaumburg v. Citizens for Better Environment, which struck down a municipal ordinance regulating who and where people could ask for charitable donations. “Anytime the government restricts people’s rights to speak in public, it’s a very high legal burden for the government,” Heiden argued.

These court rulings are creating ripple effects in other municipalities. After the Grand Junction decision last week, cities across Colorado, from Denver to Boulder to Colorado Springs, have suspended enforcement of their own anti-panhandling ordinances.

Municipal ordinances banning panhandling are an increasingly common tactic that cities across the country are using to deal with their homeless populations. According to a 2014 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which examined laws in 187 cities across the country, a quarter of them imposed citywide bans on panhandling in public, a 25 percent increase since 2011. More than three out of every four cities had an ordinance prohibiting panhandling in certain public areas.

Panhandling bans are only one of many ways that some local officials criminalize homelessness. Other common tactics include bans on sleeping or sitting in public, sleeping in vehicles, or sharing food.

Heiden called it “unfortunate” that, in the wake of the Great Recession, many cities passed new laws criminalizing homelessness. “Their response hasn’t been to address the problem of homelessness and poverty, but instead to think about how to move people out of downtown areas,” he said.