MONTPELIER, Vt. – Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, in a letter nationally coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, demanded that Barre City, Bennington, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Rutland Town, and Winooski repeal their bans on panhandling.
Since the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert finding heightened protections for free speech, every case brought against panhandling ordinances—more than 25 to date, including many with language similar to the six Vermont cities and towns—has been found unconstitutional. The letter by ACLU of Vermont today is part of a coordinated effort amongst 18 organizations in 12 states targeting more than 240 similar outdated ordinances. See nlchp.org/panhandling for more information.
“No one wants to see poor people have to beg for money,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “But until all their basic needs—food, health care, and housing—are met, they have the right to ask for help.”
As James Douglas, a homeless resident of Brattleboro, told VPR last year, “I’m trying to get myself up on my feet. Occasionally I come out here and I panhandle so that I can pay the bills…” Similarly, Sue Wells, a currently homeless member of the Homeless Union of Greensboro, North Carolina, explained, "We don't panhandle because we want to. We do it because all of us need to put food in our stomachs. Most of the time, people are just trying to pay rent, or pay a bill or get bus fare.”
Since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, 100 percent of lawsuits against cities with panhandling bans have been successful in striking down the bans, and at least an additional 31 cities have repealed their ordinances. Earlier this year, Burlington repealed its anti-panhandling ordinance. Other municipalities in Vermont, however, still have anti-panhandling ordinances on the books, and some, like Brattleboro, have recently increased enforcement, creating additional hardship for impoverished Vermonters.
ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney, Jay Diaz: “Anti-panhandling ordinances and enforcement policies are unnecessary, unconstitutional, and plain bad policy. We’re calling on Vermont’s communities to repeal these ordinances and seek constitutional and positive steps to reduce homelessness and poverty.”
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, together with the National Coalition for the Homeless and more than 100 other organizations, launched the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign (www.housingnothandcuffs.org) in 2016 to emphasize criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness.
“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities.”
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education. The Housing Not Handcuffs campaign is a project supported by the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is dedicated to advancing the civil rights and civil liberties of all Vermonters. Since its founding in 1967, the ACLU of Vermont has been the state's premier guardian of liberty, working in the courts, the legislature, and in communities to preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.