Ban on pushy panhandlers quietly repealed: ‘This is an important victory’

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A city panhandling ban was quietly lifted last month. | Sun-Times file photo

Homeless advocates and civil liberties groups on Thursday applauded Chicago for quietly repealing what critics called an “unconstitutional” ban on aggressive panhandling.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty had all put Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration on notice.

It was part of a national campaign aimed at reversing local laws viewed as “discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

Their mid-August letter warned that Chicago’s ban on aggressive panhandling served “no compelling state interest.”

“Distaste for a certain type of speech or a certain type of speaker is not even a legitimate state interest, let alone a compelling one,” the letter stated.

The ordinance was repealed without fanfare at the Nov. 14 City Council meeting. Advocates were notified of the repeal two weeks later.

On Thursday, the groups issued a press release taking a bow for a change that could lead to a more aggressive panhandling, particularly in the downtown area.

“Chicago’s panhandling ordinance was actively enforced, so this is an important victory for people in Chicago who panhandle as a means of survival,” Diane O’Connell, an attorney representing the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, was quoted as saying.

“We have spoken to hundreds of people experiencing homelessness who have been ticketed or arrested for violating this ordinance —locked up or charged fines they cannot pay for nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights. The city was forced to recognize that everyone has the right to ask for help.”

Rebecca Glenberg, senior staff counsel for the ACLU, noted that 55 cities across the nation have either repealed their panhandling ordinances or had them overturned by courts since 2015.

That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court “demanded closer examination of laws regulating speech based on content.”

“Our Constitution does not permit a lower standard of protection for speech simply because the speaker is someone in need of assistance,” Glenberg was quoted as saying.

Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, issued a statement saying the city “determined that the section covering aggressive panhandling was unnecessary and that public safety remains fully protected by other sections of the municipal code.”

In 2004, with stories from muscled and threatened victims ringing in their ears, Chicago aldermen voted to fill a two-year legal void that had left Chicago Police officers without a weapon against aggressive panhandling.

The Indianapolis-style crackdown was approved, only after then-Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th) received assurances that the ordinance would not be used indiscriminately to sweep “undesirables” off the streets.

At Lyle’s request, the City Council agreed to extend to bus stops a 10-foot radius that was already in place to ban panhandling near ATMs, banks and currency exchanges.

“I’m concerned that, to protect the rights of people to walk down the street and be free from threats and verbal abuse, we do not begin to go down the slippery slope where we’re targeting people based upon their financial status —their look,” Lyle said then.

Sheri Mecklenburg, general counsel to then-Police Supt. Phil Cline, assured aldermen that police officers would not “use this to get people who look undesirable out of the way. They’re going to use it to respond to citizen complaints that we have been getting and to protect our citizens and make them feel safe on the streets.”

Mecklenburg also promised that police officers would receive adequate training at roll calls, just as they did before a revised gang loitering ordinance took effect.

Aldermen acted after hearing panhandling horror stories from women who live and work in the downtown area.

They talked about being followed down the street and called “bitch” and “whore” when they refused to open their wallets. They told of having their paths blocked even when traveling with children in strollers.

Then-Ald. Vi Daley (43rd) portrayed the panhandling that went on in her north lakefront ward as something akin to Manhattan before former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cracked the whip on petty crimes.

“Someone approaches your car and asks for money. They’re trying to wash your windows and … they want money after that. You’re sitting in your car and they’re trying to sell you water. … We do have a problem out there and we need to address it,” Daley said then.

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