04/18/2012 12:17 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

Fort Lauderdale Should Re-think Its Approach on Panhandling

The Fort Lauderdale City Commission should vote against the proposed ordinance that effectively criminalizes the solicitation of donations anywhere in the downtown area. The ordinance, which had its first reading last night, would be an over broad infringement of the First Amendment rights of the city's poorest and most vulnerable residents.   Panhandling is a form of protected speech, and the city must meet strict requirements when trying to restrict this activity protected by the First Amendment.
Several local groups, including the South Florida Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Reverend Gail Tapscot of the Fort Lauderdale Unitarian Universalist Church, and South Florida Food Not Bombs have spoken out against the ordinance, and with good reason. The ordinance would effectively prohibit anyone from asking for donations nearly anywhere in the downtown area, as it forbids panhandling within 15 feet of a bus, bus stop, sidewalk cafe, parking lot or garage, parking pay station, park, ATM, building, or private property. This covers nearly the entire downtown Fort Lauderdale area, effecting an unconstitutional infringement on residents' First Amendment right to ask for money for their own survival. As written, the ordinance would impose identical restrictions on any charitable organization, such as the Salvation Army or United Way.
Moreover, the definition of aggressive panhandling, which the ordinance would ban throughout the entire city, uses vague and over broad terms that give excessive discretion to police officers, who will undoubtedly respond by harassing the homeless citizens of Fort Lauderdale.  Although municipalities are permitted to set content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions on speech, these restrictions are not narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, because they are not limited to a designated area, are not limited in time, and are not limited only to aggressive panhandling.
The City of Fort Lauderdale has not provided any information about the fiscal impacts of enforcing such an ordinance.  The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness has long recognized that a law-and-order approach may end up costing municipalities more money in the long run. The Council noted in its Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness: "Criminalizing acts of survival is not a solution to homelessness and results in unnecessary public costs for police, courts, and jails."  By pursuing criminalization, rather than focusing on root causes of homelessness, the City of Ft. Lauderdale is pursuing strategies that keep people locked in homelessness at significant public cost.

This proposed ordinance comes on the heels of last month's efforts, when the City launched a $26,350 public education campaign to discourage people from giving money to folks asking for donations. This ordinance is yet another example of a government attempting to criminalize the existence of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.  Instead of seeking to address the issue of homelessness by offering housing or other forms of public assistance, the City of Fort Lauderdale seeks to simply force homeless residents out by criminalizing their very means of survival.  This is neither a moral nor fiscally sound approach. Fort Lauderdale should pursue a different course of action.