Lake Worth, FL, a city of approximately 35,000 people just south of West Palm Beach, voted last week to impose a crackdown on homeless people who ask passersby for spare change.
Ordinance No. 2014–34 was approved by a unanimous vote on November 4th. The new law bans panhandling on city-owned property, such as near bus stops, ATMs, and other downtown areas, as well as on private property without express permission. According to the Palm Beach Post, “That covers most of downtown,” effectively banning all panhandling in the area where homeless people would be able to raise the most money.
The measure also bans “aggressive panhandling,” a nebulous term that theoretically prohibits panhandling in a threatening manner, though in reality is so subjective it gives authorities free rein to crack down on any homeless person asking for money.
If a homeless person is convicted under the new law, he or she could face as much as 60 days in jail or a $500 fine.
Most business owners who testified during the public comment portion of the meeting supported the measure, but one, Michael Flack, spoke against 2014–34 because the legislation did not address the root causes of poverty. Indeed, the law will do nothing to prevent or cure homelessness, but it will make homeless people’s already-difficult lives even more onerous.
Lake Worth is not the only city to crack down on the homeless, nor is it the only city to recently enact new ordinances to this effect. A survey of 187 cities conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that laws criminalizing homelessness were increasing across the country. These ranged from banning panhandling to making it illegal for homeless people to have possessions to bans on sleeping in public areas to clamping down on charities distributing food to the needy.
Still, Lake Worth’s new ordinance could be undermined by legal challenges. A lawyer with the local American Civil Liberties Union, James Green, believes that the law unconstitutionally infringes on the First Amendment’s free speech protections. Indeed, there is precedent for such an argument. Last year, a federal appeals court struck down a statewide anti-begging law in Michigan because it violated homeless people’s right to free speech.