On June 6, the Wethersfield Town Council approved three ordinances targeting panhandlers. The justification of these ordinances are more than problematic: they are egregious, hypocritical, and likely unconstitutional. The effects of these ordinances will be cruel and will bring even more misery.
The first one states that a pedestrian could be fined up to $50 if they “create an immediate hazard to himself or herself.” Given that crossing the Mad Max-like Silas Deane Highway/Rt 99 puts any pedestrian in “immediate hazard to himself or herself,” if the police decide to be consistent, officers could start fining anybody on a crosswalk or a sidewalk. Two other ordinances claim to curb “fraudulent solicitations.” Consumers are already protected from “fraudulent solicitations” through state and federal legislation, so it does sound redundant. Members of the Council should be well-aware that asking for money is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts have upheld the right of anybody holding a sign that reads: “Help needed.” It has to be stressed that it is also legal to stand in the middle island of a crosswalk.
Surely, one does not need to be a constitutional lawyer to note that towns and cities that put these types of socially regressive ordinances do get sued and do systematically lose. Federal Courts have been striking down anti-panhandling ordinances all over the country. It can get costly for taxpayers. Just look at the City of Oklahoma which settled last year for $1 million for a similar ordinance, among many other cases, and was forced to remove the ordinance. In the event that the Town Council found an unlikely loophole - that no other towns or cities in this country have - the Council will have to own the morally dubious legacy of introducing policies leading to harassing the poor.
It should be highlighted that getting a citation is not as inconsequential as the proponents of the ordinance argue. For instance, had the Council invited a social worker who works with homeless people to discuss the ordinances, they would have learned that a homeless person is most likely to miss a court date, due to a lack of a valid address, and to receive a warrant as a result. For those with insecure housing, a citation is often a one-way ticket to jail. For parents, it can mean losing custody of their children. If anything, it is not a “slap on the wrist.”
Eliminating the symptoms of the social crisis that we are going through with policing is neither an effective policy nor a morally sound one. Should the town be interested in tackling the poverty crisis that so many are facing, it would create social workers’ positions and increase its public housing budget. Instead, Wethersfield taxpayers are spending $6.5 million per year, including $518,441 in overtime, on policing.
In spite of this astronomical amount of money spent, Wethersfield’s streets and roads are not safe. In this town, there were 574 crashes in 2021 alone involving 1427 individuals according to the UConn Crash Repository. Looking at this data, it is clear that the Police are of very poor value for money when it comes to preventing crashes and this is where the hypocrisy kicks-in.
The most egregious comment came from a Councilor who justified his vote by his desire to protect panhandlers from traffic injuries, citing the death of a panhandler in West Hartford. In fact, this pedestrian had been killed by a driver while being on a sidewalk, highlighting the highly inadequate infrastructures for protecting pedestrians in our state.
Had the Council been interested in tackling crashes involving vulnerable road users in Wethersfield, it would have invested in infrastructure and policies that actually prevent crashes. In this town, there are no speed humps, no speed tables, no road diets, and no bike lanes.
The town has neither invited the Connecticut Department of Transportation to conduct a Road Safety Assessment in the areas that have the most crashes nor has it applied to the last round of Connectivity Grants which would have allowed funding for infrastructures protecting pedestrians. With the absence of a Complete Streets Committee and of a Bike and Pedestrian Plan, the town is not able to compete for the, once in a generation, federal grants coming from the infrastructure federal package such as the Safe Streets for All. Instead of fighting imaginary issues, the Council should look at what other neighboring towns are doing such as focusing on pedestrian friendly areas.
Leadership is about looking forward and showing direction, not drifting with the stream of angry automobilists who are annoyed at being momentarily confronted with poverty. Panhandlers happen to have Constitutional rights, they deserve to be protected like any other residents of our nation. Pedestrians in Wethersfield also deserve to be safe when they walk around town and, ultimately, deserve better. There is still time for the Town Council to reverse course, to listen to civil liberties, homeless people, and bike/pedestrian advocates instead of engaging in performative politics.
Thomas Regan-Lefebvre is a Wethersfield resident and the Coordinator at the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress. He is an advocate for modes of transportation which are environmentally sustainable, equitable, and accessible.