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Police have arrested or cited Jonathan Singleton six times for holding a sign that lets passersby in Montgomery, Alabama, know he’s homeless and that “anything helps.” As part of those charges, he’s also been threatened with hundreds of dollars in fines he can’t possibly afford.
“Maybe somebody would help me as far as giving me a job or an opportunity — not necessarily money,” said Singleton, a 44-year-old carpenter who’s been homeless since 2015. “That’s why I hold the sign.”
Authorities in Montgomery have written more than 400 citations like the ones Singleton’s received under the state’s two anti-panhandling statutes since July 2018. Just for begging around town or soliciting someone for help near a highway, the city’s homeless population can face fines of up to $500 and six months in jail. Now, three of the country's biggest civil rights organizations have teamed up to sue Montgomery and its police force on behalf of Singleton and two other local homeless people like him.
Civil rights organizations have long argued that anti-begging laws violate the First Amendment, although they remain on the books across the country — often on a local, rather than state, level. Of the 187 cities surveyed annually by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 83% still have at least one law restricting panhandling, according to its latest tally. Singleton’s lawsuit against Montgomery comes as part of a successful nationwide effort to weaken those laws by arguing they unfairly and obviously restrict homeless people’s speech.
“If they would spend a little more time trying to help us and not fight us, we’d probably get a little further.”
“Since at least 2015, any community that has a city attorney worth their bar license should be looking at these ordinances and saying, ‘We need to get these off the books. We need to have police stop enforcing them immediately,’” said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, one of the organizations that brought the suit Wednesday. “And that goes not just in Alabama, but all across the country. Somehow the word hasn’t gotten out, or it’s being willfully ignored.”
The lawsuit — filed by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama — names the city of Montgomery, its sheriff, and Alabama’s secretary of law enforcement as defendants. The lawsuit seeks an injunction and declaratory judgement that would prevent cops from arresting or citing people.
“When you criminalize people asking for help, they’re not able to meet their basic needs that are necessary to survive; it can lead to people losing their liberty,” said Micah West, senior staff attorney at the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center.
Montgomery’s city attorney’s office and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency declined to comment on pending litigation; representatives with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency did not immediately respond to request for comment on the lawsuit.
“Today it is me. Tomorrow it could be you.”
Two Alabama laws currently make it illegal to panhandle or ask for help in public in some way. One bans “wandering” around an area for the “purpose of begging” under a loitering statute; the other blocks people from asking for “employment, business, or contributions” while standing on a highway or near a highway. The “solicitation” statute regarding highways leads to more citations in Montgomery.
Beneath those state laws, there’s also a slew of unique city ordinances that make it illegal to panhandle. For example, Mobile went viral for its anti-panhandling enforcement in December. Two Mobile police officers with the self-described “panhandler patrol” were accused of mocking homeless people when they posted a photo of a “quilt” they crafted out of their signs around the holidays. The local police chief apologized on their behalf.
For Singleton, begging is the only way he can get food or money to get him through the day. Since 2015, he’s been caught in a vicious cycle of homeless. Not having a permanent address makes it difficult for him to obtain steady work. (He also doesn’t have a driver’s license due to unpaid fines and fees.) And the lack of stable housing exacerbates his health conditions — including untreated diabetes, pancreatitis, and kidney failure.
When Singleton first met West, of the SPLC, he said he was standing near a highway exit holding a sign that read: “Homeless. Today it is me, tomorrow it could be you.” In the course of Singleton’s first conversation with an attorney, a cop approached, wrote him a citation for begging under state law, and asked him to rip up the sign.
But Singleton doesn’t see what all the police fuss is about; his signs aren’t aggressive or even asking explicitly asking for money. The two other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Ricky Vickery and Micki Holmes, similarly allege that panhandling is necessary to their survival. Despite the threat of arrest and police harassment, they continue to beg for money.
In 2015, a Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert determined cities couldn’t restrict certain signs based on their content. Afterward, judges began blocking enforcement of panhandling laws in cities including Hot Springs, Arkansas, Slidell, Louisiana, and Albuquerque — all on First Amendment grounds. That’s a big reason why Singleton’s attorneys feel their case will succeed.
Some cities have also voluntarily repealed, or at least revised, their panhandling law to ensure they’re less about content and more about a specific type of conduct — like slowing traffic at a particularly busy intersection.
Yet cities also continue to pass the bans, despite a years-long stream of warnings from lawyers. Montgomery passed its own panhandling ban in July, for example, but repealed it by December after protests and continued pressure from civil rights attorneys.
“If they would spend a little more time trying to help us and not fight us, we’d probably get a little further,” Singleton said.
Cover image: In this Wednesday, May 10, 2017 photo D. Rogers, a homeless man, panhandles for change in Portland, Maine. The city recently began a program to offer day jobs cleaning up parks and other light labor jobs to panhandlers for $10.68 an hour. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)