Woodstock first to act, among 8 Illinois municipalities advised to change unconstitutional panhandling ordinances


Responding to our warning letter, the City Council in north suburban Woodstock voted August 6 to repeal its unconstitutional panhandling ordinance. Woodstock acted on the advice of city attorneys, who relayed the news to the CCH and the ACLU.

Woodstock is among eight municipalities recently warned that their panhandling statutes are unconstitutional. A second municipality has notified advocates that it also intends to repeal its ordinance.

July 18  – Seeking assurance that asking for help is not treated as a crime, advocates for homeless people warned – or reminded – eight municipalities from across Illinois that local panhandling ordinances in those communities are unconstitutional and must be repealed. The warning came in the form of a letter from three prominent advocacy organizations today, building on a campaign launched last year.

In August 2018, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), ACLU of Illinois, and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sent a series of letters to 15 communities raising concerns about their panhandling ordinances. At least nine communities – including the city of Chicago – acted to change their ordinances to comply with the U.S. Constitution.

But officials in several communities failed to act, including Carbondale, Cicero, Danville, Joliet, and Rockford. In addition, the advocacy groups sent new letters to Glen Carbon and O’Fallon, where the local ordinance does not meet constitutional standards. Finally, a separate letter was sent to Woodstock, which changed its ordinance following publicity around the August 2018 letters, but made the change in a fashion that remains constitutionally inadequate.

“Panhandling laws unfairly criminalize people experiencing homelessness for exercising their First Amendment rights. Every person has the right to ask for help. These communities need to comply with the Constitution,” said CCH Community Lawyer Diane O’Connell.

A 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it clearer than ever that most laws targeting panhandlers are unconstitutional. Although the case (Reed v. Town of Gilbert) was not about panhandling, the Court clarified that any regulation of speech based on subject matter or purpose are unconstitutional unless the government can prove to a very high standard they are necessary. Since then, judges have consistently struck down panhandling ordinances across the country, and many other cities have repealed their laws.

“The leaders of these communities cannot ignore our Constitution,” said Amy Meek, senior staff attorney at the ACLU. “They have been put on notice that they need to repeal these ordinances. It has been four years since the Supreme Court ruled that governments must not regulate speech on the basis of its subject matter or purpose, but these ordinances are still on the books and still enforced. It is time to act.”

Many of the bans addressed today are long-standing ordinances that were not updated to address changes in Supreme Court jurisprudence. The letters cite creative approaches to reducing panhandling, like an effort in Philadelphia that established a day shelter in an unused transportation station in the city’s downtown. The ACLU and CCH argue that such approaches are more appropriate than barring individuals from panhandling. Advocates are collaborating as part of the national Housing Not Handcuffs campaign, mobilized by the NLCHP.

The Herald-News: ACLU again urges repeal of Joliet panhandler law

The Southern Illinoisan: ACLU sends second letter to Carbondale raising concerns over panhandling ordinance