Around 35 homeless advocates took over all corners and medians at the intersection of Sockanosset Cross Road and New London Avenue in Cranston, near the Garden City shopping plaza, Monday afternoon to challenge the city’s recently enacted anti-panhandling ordinance. Advocates handed out flyers to passing motorists for about an hour and even collected $2 and a Granola Bar before Cranston Police swarmed the area, issuing tickets and disrupting traffic.
Several people were issued state and local tickets. The state tickets were for “solicitation on a freeway” and the Cranston tickets were for “solicitation on roadways.” The Cranston tickets carried an $85 fine.
The action was organized by the Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a working group of people with lived experience, lawyers, outreach workers, academics, and other advocates who work to decriminalize homelessness and poverty through direct action, policy advocacy, community organizing, and public education. The group aims to generate and implement solutions to ensure that all Rhode Islanders have access to safe, affordable housing and lives free from oppression.
In the video below you can watch advocates violate the recently passed anti-panhandling ordinance, and the reaction of the Cranston Police. In the video activist Debbie Flitman talks about getting spit on by a motorist, Meghan Smith describes the tickets she received and Roger Williams Law School Professor Andrew Horwitz talks a little at the end about the law.
[UPDATE: ACLU of RI Statement on Ticketing of Panhandling Law Protesters By Cranston Police
[“Yesterday, Cranston police issued numerous citations to people exercising their right to free speech on roadway medians.
[“The newly-adopted anti-panhandling ordinance under which a number of people were cited is, like the City’s previous ordinance which the ACLU successfully challenged, a clear violation of the First Amendment. We look forward to challenging it in court in the near future.
[“Other protesters were charged with violating a totally irrelevant state law that bans the ‘cross[ing] of any freeway,’ and which is clearly not applicable to people using crosswalks to get to a roadway median. These citations are just another example of the City’s utter disregard for First Amendment rights and for the rule of law.”]
In June of 2012, Rhode Island became the first state in the country to enact a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” formally banning discrimination against Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness and affirming their equal access to housing, employment and public services. The law asserts that Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness have the right to use public parks, public transportation and public buildings, “in the same manner as any other person and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status.” The Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee advocates for the successful implementation of that law.
Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights stands in complete contrast to the recent action by the Cranston causing advocates to be dismayed by the passage of this recent ordinance on February 15, 2017. The City of Cranston ordinance, entitled “Solicitation of Roadways Prohibited” basically would ban a person from entering or standing in a roadway or median for the purpose of distributing anything to, or receiving anything from, the occupant of a motor vehicle.
While the city claims that this ordinance is about public safety, data obtained by the Committee through an Access to Public Records Act request found that traffic accidents had in fact declined since the City of Cranston halted enforcement of its prior anti-panhandling ordinance. Advocates contend that this ordinance is really about efforts to further criminalize and marginalize residents who are homeless or otherwise visibly poor.
The Rhode Island Chapter of the ACLU has consistently pointed out that the measure infringes on the constitutional rights of Rhode Islanders and will impact other constituent groups as well. It would “bar firefighters from continuing to engage in their long-standing charitable ‘Fill the Boot’ campaigns. It would prohibit school teams, cheerleaders and non-profit groups from making use of this long-recognized method of obtaining needed financial support, something such groups have done for years in Cranston.”
However, based on their experience, advocates believe that this ordinance will be differentially enforced against those who are homeless. This thinly veiled attempt by the city of Cranston to target people based on their housing status is illegal.
Roger Williams Law School Professor Andrew Horwitz describes the Cranston ordinance as, “a sad, mean-spirited, and transparent effort to engage in an end run around the First Amendment rights of the poor and the homeless.” He added that, “The city’s resources would be far more productively devoted to providing services for the needy than to providing legal fees to lawyers in an effort to defend a patently unconstitutional ordinance.”
In its report Housing Not Handcuffs, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty details the ways in which criminalizing ordinances are damaging both to individuals experiencing homelessness and to the cities that enact them. It also found that, despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, cities across the country are essentially making it illegal to be homeless with laws that outlaw life-sustaining acts, such as eating and sleeping, in public spaces.
Key findings/conclusions from the report are:
- People experiencing homelessness continue to be ticketed for living in public spaces, even when they have no other alternatives
- Laws criminalizing homelessness have dramatically increased over the past ten years
- Local governments are engaged in problematic enforcement of these laws
- The federal government is mounting pressure on local governments to end the criminalization of homelessness
- Criminalization is ineffective and expensive public policy
- Communities should end the criminalization of homelessness
- Prevent homelessness by strengthening housing protections and eliminating unjust evictions
- End homelessness by increasing access to and availability of affordable housing.