Alexis Ostlund was just trying to get by. About a month ago, she was outside of a downtown Des Moines coffee shop, on the sidewalk with a bowl out and a sign that read, "Free Hugs." But she says Des Moines police came along and told her she couldn't panhandle, that it was against the law, and made her quickly pick up her things and leave.

Other homeless people in Des Moines report similar experiences. They say that they or homeless friends have been fined or jailed for panhandling. To Ostlund, it makes no sense to penalize poor people for asking for help. “If people are willing to ask, and people are willing to give, it shouldn’t have anything to do with laws and the police.” But many other towns and cities have similar ordinances.

Demanding That Cities Repeal Panhandling Ordinances

That's why the ACLU of Iowa has teamed up with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty to send demand letters to hundreds of cities with ordinances that forbid panhandling in public spaces, whether they do it verbally or with a sign. But a series of court decisions have made it clear: Laws that outlaw panhandling are unconstitutional because they wrongly block individuals’ free speech rights. They are also ineffective, because by criminalizing poverty, all they do is drive people further into homelessness. As a result, a number of larger cities have begun to repeal these draconian ordinances.

In Iowa, the ACLU is sending letters to the cities of Des Moines, Council Bluffs, and Grimes. However, there are other Iowa cities that have similarly unconstitutional ordinances, which were not targeted with a letter. ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said the ACLU encourages all Iowa cities to take a close look at their ordinances to make sure they don’t have bans or permit requirements on panhandling or solicitation—not just those cities we sent letters to. These cities identified today represent only an initial review of some of Iowa’s largest cities. A city that did not receive a letter shouldn’t determine that their ordinances pass muster.

While it may make people uncomfortable to see impoverished people asking for money, or being asked for money, blocking their ability to ask for help is not a solution.

Panhandling Ordinances Worsen 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.”

“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.”

An important turning point in panhandling ordinances was the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert. It struck down these types of content-based regulations on free speech as a result, every case since brought against panhandling ordinances—more than 25 to date—has been found unconstitutional. Also, since that landmark decision, at least an additional 31 cities have repealed their ordinances.

Other Iowa Cities Have Similar Unconstitutional Laws

Bettis Austen noted that there are other Iowa cities that have unconstitutional ordinances, which were not targeted with a letter: “We encourage all Iowa cities to take a close look at their ordinances to make sure they don’t have bans or permit requirements on panhandling or solicitation—not just those cities we sent letters to. These cities identified today represent only an initial review of some of Iowa’s largest cities. A city that did not receive a letter shouldn’t determine that their ordinances pass muster.”

The push to stop ordinances that forbid panhandling is part of the Housing Not Handcuffs campaign (www.housingnothandcuffs.org). It was started in 2016 by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and more than 100 other organizations to emphasize that criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness.

The formal demand letter today sent by the ACLU of Iowa is part of a coordinated effort among 18 organizations in 12 states targeting more than 240 similarly unconstitutional ordinances.

The ACLU of Iowa is joining this national campaign as part of a special project to address criminalization of poverty in Iowa, which is also examining how court debt perpetuates downward spirals of poverty.

Note: The ACLU is asking that anyone who has been cited or asked to “move along” for violating one of these unconstitutional ordinances contact them by emailing legal.program@aclu-ia.org or writing us at ACLU of Iowa, 505 5th Ave., Des Moines, Iowa, 50309.

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