Cincinnati Attempts to Silence Panhandlers

by Justin Longa and Chuck Basil

    Due to an overabundance of homeless people and concern for public safety, the Cincinnati City Council passed two anti-panhandling ordinances in May of 1995. The purpose of these ordinances was to limit when and where asking for money is allowed. The first ordinance made it a crime to sit or lie down on Cincinnati’s downtown sidewalks or the skywalk during specified hours. The second made begging within a certain distance of particular buildings, ATM machines and crosswalks a crime. It also prohibited panhandling every day, regardless of distance restrictions, after 8:00pm. Much to the relief of homeless activists, those ordinances did not get the chance to see results.

    Before those ordinances went into effect, the ACLU of Ohio challenged their constitutionality on behalf of three homeless individuals brought on by a homeless activist. On May 22, 1998, Judge Sherman found both ordinances to be unconstitutional. He based his decision on these findings: 1) begging and panhandling were expressive acts protected by the First Amendment, 2) protecting the citizens was provided by the city’s aggressive panhandling ordinance, which wasn’t challenged in the lawsuit, 3) the ordinances were overly broad 4) the solicitation ordinance discriminated on the content of speech, and 5) neither adequately provided for alternative means by which homeless and poor people can communicate their requests.

     As expected, many lawsuits have been brought to court in order to uphold the constitutional rights of homeless people in cases where cities try to get rid of them. In another such instance, the city of Cincinnati attempted to remove homeless people from camping out under highway overpasses because of the image it portrayed to tourists.

    Jennifer Kinsley, attorney for a homeless man named Don Henry, forged an out-of-court settlement that called on the help of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. They believed a better solution would be for the city to work with local social service agencies in order to help to improve the conditions for homeless people. The publicity of this suit drew a wide range of social service agencies and individuals who offered their help to homeless people. Social service agencies offered housing help, while individuals and churches brought food, and a Newport company quietly donated the use of a portable toilet.

    Not to be deterred, Cincinnati re-passed the panhandling ordinances in 2001, making it illegal to panhandle near a crosswalk, car, ATM, on-ramp, or after dark or before dawn, according to Georgine Getty, director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

    Cincinnati later passed another law in 2003 requiring that panhandlers obtain licenses from the city, but the law only pertains to panhandlers who speak. Getty states that panhandlers who simply hold a sign are still protected by the First Amendment.

     “We fought to have the city address why people are forced to panhandle (i.e. poverty, lack of housing) and asked that they implement an outreach worker to address unmet needs. The mayor (Charlie Luken) said he would veto this provision, so it was removed. Downtown businesses paid for the Outreach Worker who has been very successful in helping some people, but the unfairness of our crappy panhandling laws remains,” Getty said, via email.

      According to Getty, Jennifer Kinsley has also filed suit against the city concerning the panhandling laws. She rolled the suit into Don Henry’s suit as it demonstrates a pattern of hostility against homeless people in Cincinnati. The National Coalition for the Homeless voted Cincinnati the 3rd meanest city to homeless people in 2004.

    “We need to stop punishing people for actions that stem from poverty, such as panhandling, and start looking for systemic solutions to the housing crisis and lack of jobs that necessitate such activities,” said Getty.

Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #70, May 2005. All Rights Reserved