Civil Rights Groups Demand South Florida Cities End Bans on Homeless Panhandling

Americans have a First Amendment right to walk up to other Americans and ask for help, money, or supplies. That's why cities almost always lose in court when they try to ban what's pejoratively known as "panhandling" by the homeless. In Florida alone, courts have struck down anti-aid ordinances in Tampa and Miami for violating that basic American right to ask other people in public for a few bucks.

But, at least in South Florida, three major cities — Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and Miami Beach — still restrict when, where, and how homeless residents are able to ask for cash or food. Today a coalition of civil rights groups fired off letters to eight municipalities across Florida warning the towns to voluntarily end their anti-homeless laws before they get sued.

"The right to free speech is guaranteed to us all,” Florida ACLU attorney Jacqueline Azis says in a statement. “Cities cannot ban speech simply because some would rather not hear it. It is inhumane to punish individuals for being poor and for asking for charity."

The groups — including the ACLU, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Southern Legal Counsel, Florida Public Defenders Association, and South Florida chapter of the National Lawyers Guild — voiced their demands as part of a national push that began in 2016 to persuade lawmakers across the nation to adopt laws that help house the homeless instead of arresting them. The letters come as governments and local cops across South Florida are being accused, yet again, of harassing the homeless in wealthy and gentrifying areas.

Earlier this year, the Florida ACLU accused Miami Police of "systematically" abusing homeless residents downtown. Since 1998, Miami cops have been barred from arresting homeless people for "life-sustaining" conduct such as blocking a public sidewalk with personal belongings. The city recently filed a legal motion to vacate that set of laws, called the "Pottinger Agreement," but the ACLU argues that the agreement instead needs even stricter enforcement. The civil rights group provided New Times with multiple photo and video examples of cops destroying homeless property or illegally arresting displaced residents, including one woman who died after MPD put her in jail. In other instances, the ACLU says the city used power washers to spray homeless residents.

In South Florida, the national rights groups are challenging an ordinance in Miami Beach banning anyone from asking for money in major tourist areas such as Lincoln Road, Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, and Washington Avenue. In the past, Miami Beach lawmakers have argued that because homeless people are still allowed to panhandle in other parts of town, it's OK to criminalize the act in other parts of the city. In their letter, the rights groups argue that explanation is hogwash.

"We call on the city to immediately repeal the ordinance and instead consider more constructive alternatives," the letter says.

The groups are also heaping criticism yet again on Fort Lauderdale, perhaps the most infamously anti-homeless city in Florida. After it passed a draconian set of ordinances that banned actions including placing backpacks on sidewalks or feeding the homeless in almost all situations, the city in 2014 arrested Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old man, for feeding homeless people outdoors.

In the years since, the city has been repeatedly accused of using underhanded tactics to sweep the homeless out of town. The ACLU is separately suing Fort Lauderdale after city officials called in code violations on themselves as a pretext to bulldoze a homeless encampment in Stranahan Park. Homeless people there say they lost irreplaceable items, including birth certificates and family photos. Fort Lauderdale's anti-begging ordinance bans the practice in almost all public areas of the city.

"We can all agree that we would like to see a Fort Lauderdale where homeless people are not forced to beg on the streets," today's letter reads. "But whether examined from a legal, policy, or fiscal standpoint, criminalizing any aspect of panhandling is not the best way to get to this goal."

The groups note that since the 2015 Reed v. Town of Gilbert Supreme Court decision extended First Amendment rights to the homeless, civil rights groups have won 100 percent of the cases they've brought against anti-begging laws.

The homeless-rights groups have given each Florida city until October 1 to respond. If they don't take action voluntarily by then, the groups warn, the cities could soon wind up in court.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.