The American Civil Liberties Union and a group of lawyers, fresh off kicking the city of Fort Lauderdale's ass in court for banning food sharing with the homeless, is picking its next fight.
In letters sent August 30 to Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, two among several cities in Broward County to prohibit panhandling, the ACLU of Florida demanded an end to the ban. Cooper City, Margate Pembroke Pines, and Weston have enacted similar ordinances. The letter is part of an effort spearheaded by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty to end panhandling bans in more than 240 cities. The ACLU writes:
"Other cities in Florida, such as the City of Gainesville, have stopped enforcement or repealed theirpanhandling ordinances when informed of the likely infringement on First Amendment rights. After alawsuit was filed against it, the City of Pensacola repealed its ordinance almost immediately after passingit. As was the case with these other Florida cities, the Fort Lauderdale ordinances almost certainly violatethe constitutional right to free speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.We call on Fort Lauderdale to repeal the Panhandling and Solicitors Ordinances and instead consider moreconstructive alternatives."
“These bans are nothing more than mean-spirited attempts by small-minded government officials to push homeless people around and away,” says Howard Finkelstein, Broward County Public Defender, who signed the letter.
Finkelstein says he fought panhandling bans in Broward back in 1977 when they were declared unconstitutional. He adds that cities use such bans to address their homeless problems the same way junkies deal with their addiction.
“The government always goes for the quick fix," he adds, "which is, beat them up, arrest them, deny them food, and they will leave town after they get out of jail, and that's what Fort Lauderdale has been doing... the City of Fort Lauderdale needs to stop being mean and stop being stupid and become part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.”
According to Jackie Azis, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, every panhandling ban that has ever been challenged in court has been struck down. The letter is a warning to Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood,
“Our goal is to let these cities know that these panhandling ordinances are unconstitutional, and enforcement of those ordinances needs to stop,” Azis says. “What you’re doing is wrong and if you don’t know it, now you know.”
Fort Lauderdale's panhandling ban is one of several laws the City of Fort Lauderdale has approved in the last four years to target its homeless population. In 2014, the city enacted a food sharing ban that attempted to restrict groups like Food Not Bombs, which feeds homeless people for free on Fridays in Stranahan Park, by requiring hand-washing stations and permits.
The group sued, arguing the ban restricted its First Amendment rights on the basis that their outdoor food sharings were a legally-protected act of protest and expression. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the group, calling the food sharing “expressive conduct.”
“[Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs] does not serve food as a charity, but rather to communicate its message ‘that society can end hunger and poverty if we redirect our collective resources from the military and war and that food is a human right, not a privilege, which society has a responsibility to provide for all,’” Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote in the federal appellate court opinion.
Kirsten Anderson, director of litigation at the Southern Legal Counsel, worked on the food sharing case and praised the ruling.
“We think this decision strengthens our message to cities across the country that they need to invest in constructive solutions to homelessness instead of wasting government resources on punishing people who seek to offer aid,” Anderson says.
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Anderson is now working with the groups targeting panhandling bans, saying they are “not a solution to homelessness.”
Read the letter in its entirety below.
Requests for comment from both Trantalis and Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy were not immediately answered.