War on the Homeless: Lake Worth Passes Its Own Anti-Panhandling Law

War on the Homeless: Lake Worth Passes Its Own Anti-Panhandling Law
Tamorlan via Wikimedia Commons

Across South Florida, cities are beefing up their statutes against the homeless. As Fort Lauderdale begins enforcing its restrictions on public feedings, now Lake Worth has jumped in with its own new law against panhandling. Despite the obvious questions about the legality of such a law, the Palm Beach County town's commissioned greenlit the proposal this week.

See also: Arnold Abbott, 90-Year-Old Activist, Cited Again While Feeding Homeless

The proposal -- Ordinance 2014-34 -- passed 4-0 in its final reading this week, according to the Palm Beach Post. The legislation claims to be aimed at "aggressive" panhandling, which is a big, overstuffed burrito of a legal definition. The fine-print says "aggressive" panhandling equals threatening requests for money after the donor has said no, begging, repeated requests, or blocking a pedestrian's path or cursing people out after they've declined. The law will also ban the homeless from asking for money near bus stops, ATMs, or outdoor cafés.

Violators face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

"Aggressive panhandling is when they go into a business and ask for money, and when they say 'no,' go outside and urinate and defecate on the building," Lake Worth Mayor Pam Triolo told the Post.

While well-intended, you can probably see the problems here. First off, the right to panhandle has been upheld in court under the First Amendment -- a point that was brought up to Lake Worth commissioners by the American Civil Liberties Union, to no avail. The law is basically teed up for a legal challenge once police begin making arrests and issuing tickets. Earlier this year, the ACLU filed suit to block similar legislation from going live in Colorado.

But the main issue is the foggy definition of "aggressive." Just by the airy nature of the statute's definition, that terminology can be applied willy-nilly by law enforcement or pedestrians. Outside of obvious angry or violent threats, one person's "aggressive" panhandling is just another's annoyed rebuke.

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