Today, the ACLU of Mississippi, in a letter nationally coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, demanded that 16 jurisdictions in Mississippi repeal their bans on panhandling. Since the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert finding heightened protections for free speech, every case brought against panhandling ordinances—more than 25 to date, including many with language similar to those found in these 16 Mississippi towns and cities—has found them unconstitutional.
Jackson, MS is one of the 16-targeted cities. Before a person may ask for money in public, he or she must present him or herself at the Jackson Police Department to be photographed and fingerprinted in order to obtain a permit.
“It is contrary to American values to require someone, before they can speak in public, to first inform the government and obtain a permit. It is cruel to require people begging for their daily existence to do so,” said Joshua Tom, Legal Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “We are demanding that any place in Mississippi with these unconstitutional ordinances take them off the books.”
Since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, 100-percent of lawsuits against cities with panhandling bans have been successful in striking down the bans, and at least an additional 31 cities have repealed their ordinances.
“No one wants to see poor people have to beg for money,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “But until all their basic needs—food, health care, and housing—are met, they have the right to ask for help.”
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, together with the National Coalition for the Homeless and more than 100 other organizations, launched the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign (www.housingnothandcuffs.org) in 2016 to emphasize criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness. The letter by the ACLU of Mississippi today is part of a coordinated effort amongst 15 organizations in 11 states targeting more than 175 similar outdated ordinances.
“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities.”
The targeted cities include Jackson, Gulfport, Southaven, Meridian, Greenville, Olive Branch, Horn Lake, Clinton, Ridgeland, Starkville, Vicksburg, Pascagoula, Brandon, Clarksdale, Natchez, and Greenwood. Anyone affected by these unconstitutional laws should contact the ACLU of Mississippi.