Chicago Tribune: ACLU, homelessness advocates call on Illinois cities to repeal laws prohibiting panhandling, citing First Amendment

By Ese Olumhense

Laws prohibiting panhandling not only criminalize those who are homeless, but are unconstitutional, said a coalition of civil liberties and homelessness advocates on Tuesday as they launched a campaign to end the bans in 15 municipalities in the state, including Chicago.

The push is part of a larger national effort orchestrated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which is working with advocates in almost 240 cities in more than a dozen states to press for repeals of panhandling prohibitions. In Illinois, where the D.C.-based nonprofit worked with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the ACLU of Illinois, officials in Aurora, Carbondale, Champaign, Chicago, Cicero, Danville, Decatur, East St. Louis, Elgin, Joliet, Moline, Oak Park, Peoria, Rockford and Urbana were sent letters challenging their panhandling ordinances.

“The ordinance serves no compelling state interest,” the coalition said in its letter Tuesday to Chicago officials. “Distaste for a certain type of speech, or a certain type of speaker, is not even a legitimate state interest, let alone a compelling one.”

The groups say the U.S. Constitution is on their side, citing a unanimous 2015 Supreme Court ruling that calls on governments to closely review laws that regulate speech based on its content. Since the high court’s decision, each of the 25 times an anti-panhandling ordinance has been challenged in court it has been found unconstitutional, said Diane O’Connell, community lawyer at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless — an “overwhelming batting average.”

“Everyone has the right to ask for help,” O’Connell said. “It’s really kind of shocking that (communities) would outlaw such a thing.”

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Panhandling ordinances have been struck down or repealed in Springfield, New York City and Tampa, Fla.

In Chicago, where an estimated more than 80,000 are homeless, panhandling is legally defined as “any solicitation made in person upon any street, public place or park in the city, in which a person requests an immediate donation of money or other gratuity from another person.” The city bans panhandling in various places, including CTA property, and in certain circumstances, such as doing so in a way “that a reasonable person would find intimidating,” including touching people, asking for money when someone’s standing in line, blocking someone’s path or using profanity or abusive language.

“The city of Chicago is dedicated to ensuring all residents have a place to call home and that incidents of homelessness are rare and brief,” said Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department. “The city has made strategic investments to support and improve the circumstances of this vulnerable population, and while we are still reviewing the letter, we look forward to continuing the city’s ongoing dialogue with homeless advocates.”

At the entrance to the Pedway at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue during rush hour Tuesday evening, some who were panhandling voiced discontent with the city’s policies.

“I think it’s wrong, really,” said Bud Wilson, 60, who’d been seated at the top of the Pedway entrance’s steps for four hours.

As commuters raced by to catch homebound trains, Wilson, clutching a cane, pleaded for change. On a typical day, he makes about $20 to $30 panhandling, he said. He has been homeless for seven years.

Violations of Chicago’s ordinance carry a $50 fine for the first or second offense within a year. The fine doubles for a third or subsequent offense within a 12-month period.