On Chicago Loop Alliance’s new tactics regarding homeless people

CCH sent the following letter on May 27 to the Chicago Loop Alliance, taking issue with its new campaign regarding interactions with homeless people downtown. The campaign is described in a story on DNAinfo.com, “Don’t Give to Panhandlers, Give to Charities, New Loop Campaign Advises.”

Michael M. Edwards, President & CEO

Chicago Loop Alliance

27 East Monroe Street

Chicago, IL 60603

Dear Mr. Edwards:

The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) has become aware of the “Change for the Better” brochure which the Chicago Loop Alliance (Alliance) has created and is promoting in the Loop area. As perhaps you know, our organization does not support the use of this brochure which both targets homeless persons in public places for special scrutiny by others thereby demeaning them; and urges calling police on those engaging in lawful conduct. Because the brochure is inaccurate and misleading, CCH requests that – at a minimum — the Alliance correct it immediately. 

Under the section entitled Types of Panhandling, the brochure implies that any verbal request for money is illegal as aggressive panhandling. Indeed, the section defines “legal behavior” as seeking a donation “without any verbal request.” This is simply not an accurate description of permissible behaviors. It is perfectly lawful for a person to verbally request money or another form of donation on the street. Your brochure should make that clear in the very same section. Chicago’s Aggressive Panhandling Ordinance 8-04-025 makes the point explicit prohibiting only speech which is “profane or abusive” or that which “would cause a reasonable person to be fearful or feel compelled” or which “a reasonable person would find intimidating…” 8-04-025 (b)(2).

In another section, the brochure suggests that “any statement or gesture which makes you feel fearful” is unlawful. Again, that is simply not true. If an individual has an irrational or bigoted fear of another, that should not criminalize legal activity. In public places many things occur which some people may not like, seek to avoid or find distasteful (even our Chicago tourists) but those things are not thereby made illegal. The Aggressive Panhandling Ordinance drawn to comport with the Constitution imposes a higher, more objective standard: would a reasonable person feel afraid in that situation.

Second, blending a brochure about donations to help homeless persons with explicit suggestions on how to promote their arrest and encourage their exclusion from public places is both disdainful and violates the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act. The Alliance brochure has a column parallel to the column containing the inaccurate definition of “legal behaviors” inviting businesses to call the police on those panhandling and to mark their property for “no trespassing” to enable police to arrest these persons (“enforce violations”). The Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act, however, guarantees the right of homeless persons to be free of discrimination and to “use and move freely in public spaces” with “the same rights and privileges as others.” (The Chicago ordinance correctly recognizes “public spaces” as those to which the public is “invited or permitted, and includes the public way”).

CCH draws your attention to the fact that cities such as Chicago which receive millions of federal dollars annually to address homelessness are subject to federal policy which disfavors the criminalization of homeless persons. See U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Searching Out Solutions, Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homeless Persons, (noting marginalization of homeless, criminalization fueling inflammatory attitudes towards and harming homeless, convictions for “acts of living” create barriers to employment, housing, social services) and Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness (criminalizing acts of survival not solution, results in unnecessary public costs for police, courts, jails; alternative approaches meet public’s need for access to public places, homeless persons basic needs).

Fundamentally, your brochure seeks to stop visitors in Chicago from directing charitable donations to homeless persons who may, in fact, need money simply to survive and are acting lawfully to obtain it. Indeed your brochure suggests that begging by the poor is “lucrative,” a statement which can be seen as inflammatory. It is our hope that you recognize that this places the homeless in a very negative light.

It is, therefore CCH’s request that you separate the Alliance brochure on donations to organizations from one discussing ways to arrest, patrol or criminalize what are acts of survival for many. Alternatively, CCH asks that you include proactive language – indeed perhaps even a campaign as part of Change for the Better – urging respect and fair treatment to homeless persons, discouraging criminalization and making people aware of the rights and legitimate needs of homeless persons as well as the duty of businesses and others to respect those rights.


L.M. Heybach

Senior Counsel, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless