This is my upcoming article for Homeward the Sacramento Street Journal September 2014.
As anyone who is looking for a job in this economy knows, it’s rough out there. There is a largely misunderstood section of the population that has been put in the position of asking other people for money for food, shelter and transportation. Oh wait, that is a job.
But, if you are down on your luck and soliciting money in public places for your own welfare, it’s called panhandling. If Sacramento County has its way, that way of earning your money will be essentially illegal.
While there is a challenge in court, the county is poised to enforce an ordinance that creates large buffer zones between solicitors and potential donors at places where solicitors commonly ask for money, food or work. At first blush, the ordinance seems to address the “safety and welfare of the general public” by making it illegal to solicit in an aggressive or threatening manner. As well it should. Most panhandlers would agree that people should not be followed after saying no to a solicitation. Nor should they be accosted at ATMs, have obscenities hurled at them or feel physically intimidated.
But this is a different matter than peaceable panhandlers who non-aggressively hold signs up and appeal for personal donations. However, the ordinance contains a clause under exemptions stating “Nothing in this …shall be construed to prohibit soliciting for charitable purposes in compliance with the requirements set forth in…this Code.” Sacramento attorney Mark Merin says that distinction makes the ordinance unconstitutional. “This ordinance is vulnerable because it has the exemption for charitable organizations. This is a free speech issue.”
Merin has petitioned the court to issue a preliminary injunction to restrain enforcement of the newly adopted ordinance. The complaint says that “a number of principles have emerged from the case law, which compel the conclusion that Sacramento County’s anti-panhandling law is invalid on it face.”
For one, Merin’s document reads, “solicitation of donations in public forums is a form of non-commercial speech fully protected by the First Amendment.” And, “Individuals who seek donations for their own personal needs and survival are entitled to the same degree of constitutional protection as persons who solicit for other causes. ‘Panhandlers’ and persons who ‘beg’—categories singled out by the Ordinance—are not relegated to some lower rung of the First Amendment.”
Merin, a well-known Sacramento civil rights champion, says any restriction that is content-based has to meet with strict scrutiny. A struggling mother is just as entitled to ask you for alms as a save-the-whales organizer is entitled to ask you to sign a petition, or a Girl Scout is free to ask you to buy cookies. “If the ordinance is to be selectively enforced, then it is unconstitutional as applied,” he says. “You can regulate panhandling. You can prohibit all solicitations in a city or county, but that would mean all solicitors, including for charities.”
People who violate the ordinance more than two times within a six month period will be found guilty of a misdemeanor. Merin details how expensive for taxpayers the legal process will be if people are arrested for solicitation, even if each person is kept in custody just 30 days. Tallying only the cost of police, jailors, court personnel and judges, the figure mounts easily to thousands, he says.
Sgt. Lisa Bowman, media relations representative for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department says they are aware of the litigation. She says the county has agreed to a 60-day period of non-enforcement so the police can “prepare people. Officers will give warnings, still just verbal advisements, until the period is up in September.”
Bowman said the department has had ongoing complaints about aggressive solicitation. “Also about people who stand in traffic. Those are a couple of major concerns.”
But the plaintiffs in Merin’s complaint include homeless people who rely on soliciting donations for their basic needs in the areas of the county affected by the ordinance. The Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee also is a plaintiff because some members of the homeless advocates’ organization distribute their newspaper in exchange for donations for their own needs. All plaintiffs “will face the choice of risking criminal penalties or choosing to give up their First Amendment right to seek donations free from unconstitutional restrictions,” reads the complaint.
Merin not only wants to see the ordinance overturned, he would like to see attitudinal changes about solicitation so that people can be given an opportunity to take care of themselves. “A lot of them are out at least five hours a day in the same place. They make minimum wage if they are fortunate. This is not something they want to have to do. It is degrading for them.”
For Merin, the “much bigger issue is why we have panhandling,” why so many people are dependent on it for their livelihood and “put in the position of imposing on others. We don’t have a society that honors helping those who are less fortunate,” he says. “Programs for public welfare and public housing have been cut out, along with job training programs. Rich people don’t want to have to pay taxes. There is insatiable greed.”
The safety net is shredded, he says, and we are not a society that “gives things out. If you are poor, it’s your own fault. You are told to take responsibility for yourself. Tell a mother with three children and no place to go to take financial responsibility.”
Old people are especially vulnerable, he says. “I walk around my neighborhood and see at least 20 people sleeping in doorways who are elderly or infirm.”
One of these could easily be Angie, a 63-year-old panhandler who spends two or three hours a day at the exit from a Sacramento shopping center. She still lives in a house her father built near the shopping center. The home is no longer hers but she is allowed to sleep on a couch. Her husband bought a motor home two weeks before he died. It is no longer hers and she lost all her possessions.
She has no family left. Her sister, mother and brother died within two weeks of each other. “I have all the death certificates and took care of the funerals,” she says. “I have nobody to ask for help. I don’t like to ask for help out here but I have a hard time getting by every day.”
Angie is slight and in ill health but keeps smiling at the people lined up to leave the mall. She can’t spend too much time out on the pavement in the 95-degree heat because she has high blood pressure and has had a “slight stroke. I’m on my last leg.”
Another panhandler whom Angie identifies as a deaf man peddles up on his bicycle and hands her a fountain soda. He hangs around for a while, trying to see if she is OK.
“I mostly stay to myself,” she says. “There are others who come out here and get drunk and violent. I take them aside.” She tries to get across to them what harm they are doing other people who must make their living soliciting. “I cry and tell them about my family and why I am doing this.”
She says the police know her and don’t bother her. Except one who hassles her and gives her tickets. “If she would just talk to me, she might not be so bitter,” Angie says. She has done community service to work off her tickets, “picking up cigarette butts for 40 hours.”
In general, she says people who drive by are not mean spirited, although one person sprayed her with pepper spray. “But a lot of good people have been in the same boat and can relate. They give me food and stuff. If it weren’t for the ones giving me a couple of dollars, I wouldn’t be here at all.”
A man who does not give his name, puts down his “Just Hungry, Thank you, God Bless” sign and sits in the grass near a Howe Street intersection. He panhandles to support himself and his wife who was “deemed incompetent” in 2008. He received guardianship and lives with his mother-in-law for now.
He cannot understand how it makes sense to arrest people for what he refers to as “signing.”
“It will clutter up the judicial system severely. I would rather see a felon behind bars than someone who has been signing.”
Sometimes people pick him up to do work for them. He is grateful but still is looking for a full-time job. It’s a circular problem because looking for a job cuts down on the time he must spend asking for money and then he is short of food. He dreams of buying a farm near Elk Grove where he could be self-sufficient.
Both his parents died not too long ago. He served in the Army, which he says did him a lot of good. “I spent a lot of time scrubbing pots and pans, but those years straightened my butt up.”
When asked what he would do if he could no longer solicit money, he starts to cry softly about the hardship on his wife. “I would be up shit creek,” he says. “Really bad. We wouldn’t be eating.”
A young man near a McDonald’s in the county holds a sign that is humorous if self-deprecating: “Dirty, Broke and Ugly.” Occasionally he flips to the other side: “Addicted to Food.” Although he is from Sacramento, right now he is trying to just pass through on his way to what he hopes is another migrant job. He has come from Northern California most recently and plans to check out jobs near Davis.
He stayed with his sister last night but doesn’t know where he will be tonight. Probably outside. He wants to get to the day shelter in Davis where he will be will be able to shower and do laundry.
He agrees with attorney Merin that not being able to sign is a freedom of speech issue and hopes the county rescinds its ordinance. People out here aren’t ugly to him, he says. “It’s the bureaucrats that are ugly.”
He has traveled 32 states doing migrant jobs. “But this is the toughest job I’ve ever had.”