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Congressional Caucus on Homelessness considers Violence Against Un-Housed Persons

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Violence Against the Homeless

On July 10, NCH hosted a briefing at the capital to discuss acts of violence against the homeless and advocate for hate crimes legislation.  The importance of this issue was marked by the attendance of the four co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness: Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL-13th), Representative Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL-23rd), Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30th), and Representative Geoff Davis (R-KY-4th).

Greg, victim of violence

All four congressional members spoke passionately about the remarkable number of violent acts against the homeless that have been recorded, as well as the overwhelming lack of data currently available.  Representative Johnson also discussed her bill, HR 3528, which would include “homeless status” in current federal Anti-Hate Crimes legislation and further require the collection of data on hate crimes committed against the homeless.

Afterwards, NCH played an equally horrifying and crucial video that displayed images of homeless individuals being beaten up.  It was difficult to watch as some of the most vulnerable members of our society were targeted and battered for circumstances outside of their control.  This video reinforced how vital hate crimes legislation is to protect the homeless.

The briefing also featured three speakers who testified about their different experiences with violence against the homeless.  The first to speak was Captain Wierzbicki of the Broward County (Florida) Sheriff’s Department who was instrumental in the passage of hate crimes legislation against the homeless in Florida in 2010.  He stressed the need for law enforcement participation in the passage of such legislation because of their role in reporting hate crimes and working with homeless individuals.

The next speaker was David Pirtle who testified as to his experience living on the streets of New York and Washington, DC due to mental illness.  Mr. Pirtle not only witnessed others being brutally beaten, but suffered abuse repeatedly himself.  His compelling story reinforced that people living on the streets are deserving of protection, particularly because of added vulnerability to the elements, illness, and hunger.

Lastly, Maria Foscarinis, current director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) and former NCH staff, testified as to the efforts by NLCHP to combat homelessness.  She drew attention to criminalization efforts across the country to penalize people for “activities of life” performed in public spaces.  She stated that access to affordable housing is a human right and that governments should seek to deal with the root causes of homelessness.  For example, permanent supportive housing has proven to be not only widely successful, but a financially responsible solution.

This event demonstrated the shared recognition amongst government officials, advocates, law enforcement, the homeless, and concerned citizens that hate crimes legislation should be expedited to protect this segment of the population. Such legislation will not only punish and deter individuals from committing bias-related crimes, but it will make a statement to the community that the homeless are deserving of such protection.

By Allison Dinmore

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


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