No one should be criminalized for asking for help. Yet that is exactly what towns do when they attempt to ban people from panhandling.
Last week, a driver killed a man who was on a sidewalk in West Hartford. Yet because that pedestrian frequently asked for money around the town center, some local politicians in nearby Wethersfield immediately tried to use his death not to improve road safety, but to increase the over-policing of people asking for help near roads. Unfortunately, Wethersfield is not alone.
Rather than deal with the root causes of why people struggle to survive, some towns in Connecticut and across the country have decided instead to criminalize people asking for money. Often called “anti-panhandling” ordinances, these laws attempt to use policing, in the forms of fines, fees, and/or arrests, to prevent people from asking for help. Some ban asking for money, while others are broadly worded and restrict asking for any kind of help of financial value, like asking for baby formula or diapers. Others ban people from asking for help in certain locations, like near bus stops or in traffic medians. And some ban asking for money in certain kinds of ways, like while performing music. There is not a comprehensive list of which towns in our state have anti-panhandling ordinances, but we know of some in Hartford, Wethersfield, South Windsor, and Enfield.
When towns decide to care more about sweeping poverty under the rug than addressing the root causes of why people struggle to survive, they pass the buck on to the people who can least afford it. Often, towns adopt panhandling bans while attempting to use people asking for money as scapegoats for the governments’ own complicity in poverty, poor infrastructure that endangers pedestrian safety, or other public health and safety problems. Policing can never solve public health problems like poverty, lack of affordable housing, shoddy pedestrian infrastructure, addiction, mental illness, or lack of access to food. Yet panhandling bans mean additional policing of people who are already over-policed: Black and Latinx people, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.
While some towns impose fines and fees that people who are struggling to meet cannot afford – and then ensnare them in the criminal legal system when they can’t pay, or when they have no set address with which to receive their order to appear for a court date – others go straight to arrests. In both cases, town anti-panhandling ordinances become on-ramps for the poverty-to-prison pipeline.
In addition to being cruel and counterproductive, many anti-panhandling ordinances are also unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment, people have the right to ask for money in public spaces – which includes sidewalks, parks, shoulders of roads, easements, and bus stops – as long as they aren’t obstructing traffic or other pedestrians. Courts throughout the country have agreed that municipalities have a right to create ordinances protecting public safety, but they have also made it clear that cities and towns may not impose discriminatory bans on some people’s rights to speak freely in public spaces.
As far as the First Amendment is concerned, asking for money is no different from holding a sign supporting a political candidate or trying to gather signatures on a petition. The government cannot discriminate against people’s rights to speak based on how much money they have, where they rest their heads at night, or whether they are asking for money, votes, or directions to the nearest bus stop. Yet some towns, like Hartford, ban everything from nonprofit fundraisers asking for donations; to struggling community members begging for water, formula, diapers, food, or money; to political organizations trying to fundraise for candidates; to churches or food pantries seeking donations for clothing or canned good drives.
Though panhandling ordinances are particularly harmful for people whom the government has already marginalized, they threaten everyone’s rights to speak freely in public places. Under Hartford’s ordinance banning soliciting money within 25 feet of a city bus stop, train stop, or ATM, for example, someone could be allowed to gather signatures for a volunteer sign-up list, but not ask those same people for donations to support a charitable cause. A rich political candidate could pay for advertising with requests for donations, while another candidate could be barred from asking for donations in the community itself.
Some people might feel uncomfortable when confronted by poverty, or when someone asks them for money. But trying to simply make poverty less visible doesn’t make it go away. And criminalizing people who are asking for help only makes things worse.