July 24, 2019

ACLU seeks repeal of panhandling bans

A homeless encampment in Burlington’s South End. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger.

By Alexandre Silberman

For VTDigger

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is calling on six Vermont towns to repeal ordinances that ban panhandling — even though most are unenforced.

Communities around the state have struggled with how to address concerns from business owners and residents who feel harassed on the street, while balancing the First Amendment rights of panhandlers.

Barre City, Bennington, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Rutland Town and Winooski have ordinances that ban or restrict asking for money on the street in some form, according to the ACLU.

The organization’s Vermont branch issued a letter to the communities on Tuesday, demanding a repeal of these policies, as part of a nationally coordinated effort by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

The 2015 Supreme Court decision Reed v. Town of Gilbert determined that a municipal ordinance restricting signs based on religious material was an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on free speech. Since that ruling, every panhandling ordinance challenge taken to court — more than 25 cases — has been considered unconstitutional.

ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Jay Diaz of Williston said the organization has been conducting research on ordinances around the state for several years, and characterized bans as a national issue that has been occurring for decades.

“Regardless of someone’s status of housed or unhoused, the First Amendment protects everyone equally, and it most certainly protects the right to ask for charity,” Diaz said.

He said the organization’s goal is to “get these laws off the books” through communication with municipalities and hopes a lawsuit won’t be necessary.

Burlington grappled in the fall with controversial proposals designed to address “quality of life” issues in the downtown area. The city has historically had laws limiting the rights of panhandlers — including an ordinance prohibiting asking for money near a public toilet — but scrapped several in April.

Laws and specific restrictions vary by municipalities. Diaz said Rutland Town, Bennington and Barre have specific ordinances that restrict things such as begging near doorways.

Brattleboro selectboard members met several times last summer to find solutions about what some say is a growing panhandling problem downtown. The community has implemented a street outreach team to better connect panhandlers with government and nonprofit services. It has also launched Project Care, a cooperative initiative with approximately 10 organizations, including the high school and police department, aimed at addressing root causes.

Selectboard member Tim Wessel said the town has never enforced its ordinance against panhandling and has no plans to.

“There’s plenty of town ordinances that we kind of ignore because they’re antiquated,” he said.

Diaz said a lack of enforcement is not enough, and some towns will sporadically use anti-begging laws.

“With these ordinances on the books, it becomes only a matter of time until enforcement is set up,” he said.

Wessel said the selectboard rejected the idea of placing a sign informing pedestrians of “their rights” when encountering panhandlers on the street, due to concerns that it would be “rude.”

He said he has seen a small recent uptick in the number of individuals asking for money downtown. The selectboard plans to address the ACLU’s letter at its next meeting, according to Wessel.

“We agree that the language is archaic and unenforceable,” Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote in a response to the ACLU letter. “Brattleboro’s selectboard and town staff have made that clear to the community we serve.”

Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said he would have to examine data to see if the city is experiencing a rise in panhandling activity. He also confirmed that Brattleboro does not enforce its panhandling ordinance.

“The line is if you’re just practicing your rights under the First Amendment that’s one thing, but if you’re committing tumultuous disorderly conduct you’ve crossed the line,” Fitzgerald said.

He said there is substantial evidence that city officials are willing to treat the situations with “compassion, respect and empathy,” and encourages citizens who feel uncomfortable to contact police.

Wessel said he has given granola bars out to panhandlers before, and the occasional cup of coffee in the winter months.

“I never give money,” he said. “That’s my personal choice. I try to talk with them and tell them about the services available.”

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