In a major step towards reducing the criminalization of the poor in Rhode Island, the City of Providence has advised the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island that it would halt enforcement of an anti-panhandling ordinance that has led to the harassment and arrest of homeless individuals. The ACLU had called for this action in a letter delivered to Mayor Jorge Elorza two weeks ago, in which it pointed out the ordinance’s dubious constitutionality and its impact on the rights of the poor and the homeless.
Advocates for the homeless have been critical of a seemingly aggressive enforcement by the City of laws that target innocuous activity of the homeless in public. In its letter, the ACLU had noted that the City’s ban on so-called “aggressive solicitation” directly targets the homeless, and that a number of similar ordinances have been recently struck down by the courts for infringing on First Amendment rights. The ACLU therefore requested that the City immediately halt its enforcement. In response, the City agreed to that request and also to terminate any pending prosecutions.
“The Mayor remains committed to making Providence a place that supports its residents, especially those who are most in need, and we look forward to our continued work together in this regard,” Providence City Solicitor Jeffrey Dana stated in a letter to the ACLU of RI.
ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said today: “This is a very positive development, and we applaud the City for recognizing that this ordinance cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny. We are confident that officials will make sure that any harassment of the homeless by police for peacefully soliciting donations, even if it doesn’t lead to an arrest for panhandling, will cease.”
Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless executive director Jim Ryczek added: “The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless welcomes this development on the part of the city. We hope this is the first step in better understanding homeless people and working with them to appropriately identify their needs and acquire safe and affordable housing. We look forward to continued progress on other problems facing the city in relation to its homeless citizens. As always, we stand ready to help the City of Providence better serve its homeless constituents.”
Megan Smith, an outreach worker at House of Hope CDC, said: “We are hopeful that Providence’s decision to halt enforcement of the aggressive solicitation ordinance demonstrates that the City recognizes panhandling for what it is: a means of survival for our poor and homeless neighbors, not a criminal activity. While there is much more work that must be done to shift policy from criminalizing poverty to finding collaborative solutions, this represents an important step forward.”
The ACLU letter had also called on the City to repeal an ordinance that bans “loitering on bus line property,” but the City claimed that no arrests had been made under that law.
The ACLU’s action is part of the organization’s ongoing efforts to challenge and repeal laws that disproportionately affect the rights of the homeless. In December, the ACLU of Rhode Island filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Cranston ordinance that bars the solicitation of donations from motorists. The ACLU argues that the ordinance violates free speech rights and is selectively enforced by the City. That suit is pending.
A copy of the ACLU’s letter is available here.
A copy of the City’s letter is available here.