In August, the ACLU of Vermont sent letters to six Vermont cities and towns, urging them to repeal anti-panhandling ordinances that infringe on the free speech rights of Vermonters in need. The letters were part of a nationwide effort among 18 organizations in 12 states that targeted more than 240 similar outdated ordinances. We joined this effort because it should never be illegal to ask for help.
In response, officials in Bennington, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Rutland Town, and Winooski took decisive action to protect the constitutional rights of their residents by repealing their anti-panhandling ordinances. Barre City placed theirs on indefinite moratorium. We will continue to work with local officials to bring their laws in line with the Constitution and common sense, encouraging state and local governments to bolster their efforts to address the root causes of homelessness—including lack of food, housing, and health care.
The 2015 Supreme Court case Reed v. Town of Gilbert made clear that it is unconstitutional for municipal ordinances to regulate only certain types of speech, including panhandling. Similarly, of the more than 25 laws attempting to ban panhandling reviewed by courts across the nation, all have been found unconstitutional.
This effort is part of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign, launched in 2016 to emphasize the fact that criminalizing homelessness – for example, by arresting people for sleeping outside or in their car, or ticketing individuals for asking for help – is the most expensive and least effective way to address homelessness.
Punishing people with fines, fees, or arrests is not a solution– it just makes the problem worse. We applaud the towns and cities of Vermont that have recognized this basic fact and acted to protect the legal rights and dignity of their homeless residents. And, we call on Vermont to support those without shelter and end the criminalization of poverty and homelessness.
On November 1st we updated this blog post to reflect the fact that Rutland Town has now joined the other municipalities in repealing its anti-panhandling ordinance.