The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help
With lower income Americans increasingly unable to find steady work and housing, post-recession homelessness and panhandling is on the rise in the U.S., and increasingly being ignored or punished.
Case in point, peaceful begging—the act of non-aggressively asking for money or food—is increasingly being banned in various cities and states across the country. The criminalization of homelessness in U.S. cities, anti-panhandling and anti-solicitation laws in 188 cities had increased by seven percent from 2009 to 2011, according to a National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty report.
Yet, the tide could be shifting.
Recently a federal judge in Arizona declared a state law unconstitutional for criminalizing begging peacefully in public, saying the strict Flagstaff, Arizona practice of detaining, jailing and prosecuting those who asked for money and food is a violation of the First Amendment's protected free speech rights.
The Arizona court ruling follows Michigan’s 85-year-old anti-begging law being deemed unconstitutional in August. Both cases were filed by American Civil Liberties Union groups in the respective states on behalf of homeless people targeted by the laws.
The Arizona case centered on a 77-year-old woman in Flagstaff who was arrested by an undercover police officer.
Her crime? She merely asked for bus money.
“What we’re concerned about is criminalizing poverty. Local business interests wanted to clear the streets. Undercover cops started entrapping people,” says Dan Pochoda, ACLU of Arizona’s legal director. “It really was an economic crime and a crime against homelessness. We think the court decision will deter targeting people (for) being homeless, asking for a buck, getting a hamburger.”
Just this year, the ACLU sued on behalf of homeless men and women opposing begging bans in Indianapolis, Indiana and Worcester, Massachusetts, among other cities, also as violations of free speech and peacefully soliciting money in public. The ACLU of Colorado sued the city of Colorado Springs last November, and an injunction was granted to stop their downtown panhandling ban until it was repealed in March.
“It’s a great trend to see these laws being challenged. I would hope that would send a message to those considering broad laws,” says Jeremy Rosen, the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty’s policy director.
Rosen points out that various discriminatory anti-begging laws, as in Michigan, stem back to the 1930s, the Great Depression, and today are selectively enforced.
“The issue we see around some of those laws are in fact that police have a tendency not to enforce them when they see kids raising money for a Little League team, but they seek to enforce them when they see a homeless person asking for money,” Rosen says. “Many anti-panhandling laws were passed during the Depression because of the skyrocketing numbers of people in need at the time.”
Back in 1970, long after the Great Depression but decades before our own twenty-first century recession, the rock group The Band released a song called “The Shape I’m In,” and its lyrics jump out even today: “I've just spent 60 days in the jail house/ For the crime of having no dough, no no/ Now here I am back out on the street/ For the crime of having nowhere to go.”