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Occupy Homelessness: A News Update

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Criminalization

While Occupy movements across the country have been forced to relocate from parks and have become less visible to communities and the media, many Occupiers have been finding creative ways to use their protests to assist community members who are un-housed or at risk of losing their homes.  In December, we asked that the Occupy movement remember the lowest 1%, and we’re seeing the response:

After an April 1st march to preserve the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness, Occupy San Francisco occupied a vacant building, calling for more housing and resources for people in the city without homes.

With so many cities having already passed, or currently considering, legislation to limit the ability of people who are homeless to sleep in public areas, Occupy Nashville held a “sleep-in” to protest an anti-camping law that had been signed by the Tennessee governor in March.

And finally, foreclosures are continuing at an alarming rate.  Occupy Our Homes recently assisted a District of Columbia resident in preventing her eviction.

Freedom to Beg?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Criminalization

WASHINGTON – U.S. District Court Chief Judge “Ted” Stewart of the Utah District Court struck down a law that limited panhandling or public begging. Families and individuals who live in persistent poverty often turn to panhandling as a way of scraping together badly needed cash (the average American panhandler earns $30 for a three hour shift). Recently, instances of “aggressive-panhandling” have prompted some local Ute’s to take action to protect their public interest. Chief Justice Steward pushed back stating:

“The court does not dispute that the state has a legitimate and important interest in regulating conduct that occurs on busy roadways, and it may do so as long as the legislation is written so as to avoid infringing on constitutionally protected rights. However, it may not do so through sweeping statutes that regulate conduct unrelated to the government interest,” (Wilkinson et al. v Utah)

Efforts to restrict the poor have a long history, both locally and nationwide. But, specific efforts to criminalize panhandling have been under particular scrutiny just in the past year. Some examples include:

  • In Royal Oaks, Michigan, the ACLU appealed to mayor and city commissioners, calling for a repeal of the 2011 ordinance that bands panhandling in all public places. They cited the lower court’s authority that protected panhandling even if it’s uncomfortable for those being asked to give to the panhandler [Coast v. City of Cincinnati 402 US 611, 61(1971)]

Panhandling was specifically protected by the lower court on the following grounds:

  1. First Amendment speech [Loper v. NYC Police Department 999 F. 2d 699 (2d Cir. 1993), Benefit v. City of Cambridge 679 N.E.2d 184 (Mass.’97)]
  2. Broad application of content speech (Logsdon v Hains 492 F.3d 334,336)
  3. Failing to prove the state’s interest to curb charitable donations or solicitations on public ground [Blair v. Shanahan, 775 F. Supp. 1315 (N.D. Cal. 1991), Ledford v State, 652 So.2d 1254 (FL/Dist.Ct.App.’95)]

Subsequently, the Royal Oaks ordinance has been repealed and replaced with a prohibition on “aggressive” panhandling.

  • ARIZONA V. BOEHLER – On September 13, 2011, a state appeals court unanimously ruled in Arizona v. Boehler that a 2003 amendment to a Phoenix anti-panhandling law was unconstitutional under the First Amendment and strict scrutiny. The law “was not narrowly drawn because it applied to many forms of peaceful solicitations that did not threaten, intimidate or harass others. The law could apply to someone politely asking for cash contributions to a political campaign or a church volunteer asking for donations to the church,” according to the opinion. “Our constitution does not permit government to restrict speech in a public forum merely because the speech may make listeners uncomfortable.”
  • In the New Orleans French Quarter, the community passed a local anti-panhandling law, stating that it wrote the law “after similar laws in other cities and is designed to withstand possible challenges that it violates the First Amendment.”

The language of the 2011 law prohibits soliciting “in or near parks, playgrounds, banks, ATMs, bars, liquor stores, convenience stores and gas stations — or within 20 feet of an intersection or marked crosswalk, to people in parked or stopped vehicles, or to people standing in lines.” Although unstated in the laws review (article) The New Orleans prohibitions are similar to Royal Oaks prohibitions, in that they applied to public places and the regulation of speech in said area..

  • Johnston County, North Carolina approved panhandling regulations just two weeks ago. The county now requires solicitors to register for a permit to ask for money. Officials sated, “They’ll have to show a photo ID and pass a criminal background check. Upon appeal by the ACLU on the grounds that several provisions were unconstitutional, commissioners dropped all requirements that panhandlers renew their permits or pay a $20 fee each month.

Neighboring Wake and Raleigh counties also began regulating panhandling, with the ACLU describing the measures as near criminalization. ACLU legal director Katy Parker said, “Panhandlers rarely possess a photo ID, which is a requirement for the permits in Raleigh, Wake County and Johnston County,” Further complicating matters for those who wish to file for public solicitation, permits purchased in Wake County must be renewed weekly. The Johnston county law is thought to only apply to public solicitors only, creating the same or similar scenario similar as seen in Arizona v. Boehler and Wilkinson v. Utah.

By Jose Morales, American University ’13

Guest post: What are the implications of drug testing recipients of government benefits?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Criminalization, Poverty

We are happy to share today’s guest post from NCH member Laura Epstein who interned with us this past summer.  Laura is currently studying Government and Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College.

Recently, many states have introduced policies that would require drug tests for welfare recipients, as reported by the New York Times. States hope that these new policies will be more “fair” and will cut the budget. However, studies show that these policies are ineffective and hurt those who need the most help.

Though some argue that these programs are better because they restrict welfare only to those who want it enough to stop using drugs, this argument fails to take into account why those in poverty would use drugs in the first place. In the 2002 study, “Substance Use Among Welfare Recipients: Trends and Policy Responses” by Harold Pollack and others found that “adverse experiences, such as childhood trauma or experiences of violence, may lead some women both to seek welfare and to initiate or to increase their substance use.” Therefore, restricting welfare recipients harms more than just those who choose to use drugs; it hurts those who experience both poverty and prior abuse.

Pollack expressed his unchanging beliefs, as in a 2011 blog post he wrote, “[Alcohol and drug] disorders are important within specific populations – most crucially, welfare recipients facing child abuse or neglect issues.” Laura Schmidt, in the 1998 Alcohol Research Group study “Substance Abuse and the Course of Welfare Dependency,” had similar findings: “AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] recipients’ substance abuse problems appeared to have little effect on their future prospects for leaving welfare…. the strongest determinants of welfare dependency…correspond quite directly to…the economic hardships of single parents and their young children.” Quite simply, the argument that new welfare policies requiring drug tests just hurt those who choose to irresponsibly use drugs makes little sense.

Furthermore, the new welfare laws fail to provide means for people to have substance abuse treatment. In response to the New York Times article mentioned above, Director and President of the Legal Action Center New York wrote, “The vast majority of testing legislation also fails to allocate money for treatment, even though it is an extremely efficient use of taxpayer money.” Not surprisingly, in a 2000 study, “Sever Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders among Former Supplemental Security Income Beneficiaries for Drug Addiction and Alcoholism, Dr. James Swartz and others found that “studies of former welfare recipients…have found that substance dependence and psychiatric illness are among the most notable barriers to gaining and maintaining employment.” Welfare reform that encompasses treatment and job training would be much more effective at improving the livelihood of those in poverty than removing all assistance from those with drug problems.

The “Housing First” method of ending homelessness also contributes to the arguments against drug testing welfare recipients. Under this method, those experiencing homelessness can begin to receive transitional housing and job training without first becoming sober. It is much easier for someone to become sober when in a hospitable environment as opposed to when living in the streets without much food or other needs. Requiring welfare recipients to first have a negative drug test is directly at odds with the successful method of Housing First. In a 2010 presentation to the Society for Social Work and Research Annual Conference, Benjamin Henwood found that “Housing First providers were able to focus more on clinical concerns since consumers and already obtained permanent housing.” Housing First programs recognize that facilitating a person’s successful recovery and employment opportunities requires assistance to put the person’s life back on track. Housing First contributes to the argument that welfare services as a whole must meet people at their level of need, including potential substance abuse.

Luckily, some of the new welfare laws have been deemed unconstitutional. However, we cannot rely on the courts to ensure that these laws do not have effect. These new laws should not pass in the first place because they disproportionately hurt those in society who need the most help in finding employment to move out of needing welfare.

*Studies show that only 20-30% of the homeless population suffers from substance abuse.  It is often the case that people believe the majority of people who are on the streets suffer from substance abuse, but lack of affordable housing remains the number one cause of homelessness. Read more from Jaqueline Dowd, Poverty Lawyer, on how advocates are pushing to make drug-testing welfare recipients illegal.

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