On the seal of the city of Worcester, Mass., is a symbol City Manager Michael O’Brien believes is a sign of his community’s compassion: a deep red heart.
“It’s a community that’s knows and understands that people fall on hard times,” O’Brien says, citing publicly funded homeless shelters and a number of services in Worcester – the second biggest city in New England – that help people with mental health issues and drug addiction.
But there’s another way Worcester deals with its homeless: it arrests them.
In January, Worcester enacted two panhandling ordinances that made it illegal to stand in a roadway median, walk into traffic to ask for money from idling drivers and bans begging within 20 feet of restaurants, banks and ATMs. Violators can be arrested and fined $50 or ordered to take part in community service.
Worcester, where about 19% of residents live below the poverty line, is one of several municipalities since the 2008 financial crisis that have enacted anti-panhandling laws or started enforcing existing ones. According to a 2012 survey of large cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 60% of cities saw an increase in overall homelessness from the year before. And according to a 2009 survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 188 cities reviewed showed a 7% increase in prohibitions on begging and a 10% increase in outlawing loitering.
Over the last several months, the American Civil Liberties Union has been challenging many of those new and newly enforced laws around the country. Not only is it suing Worcester over its two anti-begging ordinances, last month it sued Portland, Maine, over an ordinance forbidding loitering in medians. In Indianapolis, the ACLU is suing the city for ordering panhandlers to leave downtown city streets. In Slidell, Louisiana, the group has sent a letter to the police department saying it is unlawfully arresting beggars. In Michigan and Arizona, the organization has challenged state laws criminalizing panhandling in public places. While the Maine and Indiana lawsuits are ongoing, a federal judge in Arizona and a federal court of appeals in Michigan ruled that the anti-panhandling laws in both states were unconstitutional on free speech grounds.
“In some ways, it’s surprising that cities are trying to enforce these laws and pass them,” says Miriam Aukerman, an ACLU staff attorney in Michigan. Aukerman says that every federal appellate court so far has ruled begging constitutional.
But Worcester’s O’Brien doesn’t view his city’s ordinances through a First Amendment lens. Instead, he says he’s concerned primarily with public safety. Around 2008, two things started happening in Worcester: more panhandling and an increase in organizations fund-raising along roadways. He says people were frequently weaving in and out of cars to solicit money, prompting O’Brien and the city council to pass the two ordinances. One focuses on people loitering on median islands, and the other targets what the city calls “aggressive panhandling,” like beggars who step off the curb, enter traffic and reach into windows looking for donations, as well as panhandling near businesses and retailers. In an attempt to avoid challenges from groups like the ACLU, the ordinances were narrowly defined by the city council – begging near roadways is allowed, for example.
“I hold the law very dearly about freedom of speech, but in the end, when some tragedy happens, the first question is: why did we allow it?” says O’Brien. “I would rather be criticized for putting these types of measures in place to protect public safety than be criticized for a tragedy when somebody that’s fallen on hard times is collecting pennies and quarters at our intersection and is now in the ICU and may not walk again because they were pinned underneath a car.”
Worcester has only arrested 13 people since the ordinances were put into effect, but the ACLU says that’s because the city has largely achieved its goal: to halt panhandling altogether.
Matthew Segal, ACLU’s legal director in Massachusetts, says there have been efforts for years to deter panhandling in Worcester, at least since 2005 when the city put up billboards saying “Panhandling is not the solution.”
“They say they’re for public safety, but the true purpose is to stop poor people from begging,” Segal says. “The instigating moment wasn’t some poor homeless person being hurt on a traffic island…. It’s a long-standing effort to limit panhandling.”
The case against the city is ongoing. A federal judge asked Worcester and the ACLU to find common ground regarding the ordinances, but the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement and the city is now waiting for a judge to re-hear the case.
Even considering the ACLU’s success in knocking down a number of anti-begging statutes around the country, O’Brien stands behind Worcester’s ordinances and believes they’ve made his city safer.
“We’ve had a great reduction in the number of people standing on intersections,” says O’Brien, citing the outreach program the city has used to inform those panhandling near roadways of the new ordinances.
Still, he realizes that the city may lose in court in the end.
“I’m an optimist by my DNA,” he says, “but I can tell you that the courts at times have not necessarily been favorable, and I recognize that.”