Last week, we sent letters to 61 Oregon cities and towns as part of a national effort coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, urging officials to repeal unconstitutional and misguided bans on panhandling in their jurisdictions.
The letters detailed how the existing ordinances violate free speech protections in the Oregon and U.S. Constitutions, explained the moral and practical problems with criminalizing poverty, and suggested compassionate alternatives to these laws. Local leaders of jurisdictions with anti-panhandling laws from across the state – from cities as large as Medford and Springfield to towns as small as Adams and Chiloquin – are now on notice that they are violating the the rights of homeless Oregonians in their communities.
We asked these 61 jurisdictions to immediately stop enforcing anti-panhandling ordinances, to quickly take these ordinances off their books, to dismiss all pending prosecutions or citations under the ordinances, and to develop new approaches that will lead to better outcomes for all of their community members regardless of housing status.
Since the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert established heightened protections for free speech, every case brought against pnhandling ordinances has resulted in finding the ordinances unconstitutional. That's 25 cases to date. The vast majority of the anti-panhandling laws we've identified in Oregon almost certainly violate the right to free speech prtoected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And in state court, for example, the ACLU of Oregon successfully challenged the City of Medford's ordinance restricting the solicitation of donations. A circuit court judge agreed with us, striking the law down.
Anti-panhandling laws have real consequences on Oregonians who need help, not handcuffs.
People who are experiencing poverty are forced to ask for help because they are trying to survive. Those in our communities who wish to offer a helping hand should be able to answer their call with kindness. Imposing legal restrictions on this simple act of humanity harms our communities and the already far-too-fragile safety net for people living in need.
Anti-panhandling ordinances do not solve Oregon's housing crisis or cure poverty or any of the myriad other challenges that lead people into homelessness. Instead, criminalizing homelessness and poverty exacerbates the underlying causes leading to homelessness and poverty. For example, a criminal record makes it even harder for people to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits, which often propels vulnerable people into a downward cycle of criminality.
Anti-panhandling laws are also expensive to enforce and reduce the already limited resources that actually work to keep our community safe. And, of course, when governments adopt a model of criminalizing a constitutionally-protected activity, they expose their city to lawsuits that taxpayers will be on the hook for when they ultimately lose.
Cities can instead implement alternatives that aren't intended to punish the needy. Affordable and subsidized housing with wrap-around services is a far more effective legal and fiscal strategy, but it's also a more ethical and moral option. This and other alternatives can be found in "Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities" by the National Law Center for Homelessness & Poverty.
Linked below is the letter we sent to the mayor, city council members, and the city attorney of Albany, Oregon. It's similar to the letters we sent to the leaders of other cities and towns. Some of these jurisdictions may claim they aren't actively enforcing their anti-panhandling laws, but that's not enough: Take these laws down before a court does it for you.
The following Oregon cities and towns received a letter from us after we identified problematic anti-panhandling laws: Adams, Albany, Ashland, Bandon, Banks, Bay City, Brookings, Carlton, Cave Junction, Central Point, Chiloquin, Columbia City, Coos Bay, Corvallis, Cottage Grove, Culver, Dallas, Enterprise, Garibaldi, Gold Beach, Grants Pass, Happy Valley, Harrisburg, Hubbard, Jacksonville, Jefferson, Klamath Falls, Lafayette, Lake Oswego, Lebanon, Lincoln City, Malin, Manzanita, Medford, Mill City, Milton-Freewater, Newberg, North Bend, Nyssa, Pendleton, Philomath, Phoenix, Pilot Rock, Prineville, Rainer, Rogue River, Roseburg, Seaside, Sheridan, Silverton, Stayton, Sutherlin, Umatilla (city), Union (city), Waldport, Warrenton, Willamina.