Law against panhandling ruled too harsh

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Richard Salzman, panhandles on the street.

Depending on where you live and or work, you've probably been stopped by a stranger on the street at some point -- maybe many -- and been asked whether you've got any change you can spare. Everyone's got different reactions. In a growing number of cities, though, the police answer with a ticket. Anti-panhandling laws are becoming more common across the country, but this week a judge in Northern California ruled that one ordinance went too far. 

How do you feel when someone asks you for money? 

“It saddens me,” says Linda Gray, an office worker who had just been approached for money on the streets of downtown LA.  She will give a little money sometimes, she says, but “I just wish there was more we could do.” For others, being asked for money is an annoyance “maybe like a pigeon that poops on your head,” says Art Lopez, who was recently approached for money on his way to work.

A lawyer named Gordon Ownby says he usually politely declines to give money, but that there have been times where things have gotten aggressive -- which "obviously makes [him] very angry."

Some of the worries Ownby, Lopez and Gray expressed were at the root of a law passed a few years ago, hundreds of miles away in the town of Arcata, Calif. It banned people from asking for money -- aggressively or non-aggressively, either verbally or with a sign-- within 20 feet of certain locations like stores, intersections and bus stops.  

Arcata is college town known for pot farms, redwood trees and lots of itinerant panhandlers. So many panhandlers, says Mayor Michael Winkler, that locals felt like when they were approached “it was difficult for them to say no.”  He says he spoke to many older women and children who especially “felt very intimidated.” 

Richard Salzman, an Arcata citizen who filed a lawsuit against the panhandling ban, agrees that the number of panhandlers in his city can be annoying. But he says to ban “a person passively holding a sign on the corner” struck him as a violation of free speech. 

He staged a one-man protest, where he stood on the corner next to a restaurant employee holding a sign advertising five dollar pizzas -- a form of speech that perfectly legal in Arcata. Salzman held up a sign next to him: "Please buy me a pizza before I'm arrested for holding this sign."

Salzman also filed a lawsuit against portions of the panhandling ban and this week Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale A. Reinholtsen came down in his favor, ruling that it was unconstitutional for Arcata to “restrict solicitation merely because it makes people uncomfortable.” He ruled that the town can only enforce the ban near ATMs and on public transit. 

Back on the streets of LA, I asked a young man in a dirty sweatshirt what he thought about the ruling -- after he asked me for fifty cents. 

He didn't want to give his name, but he said, “I never thought I'd have to ask anyone for money. I guess you do what you got to do.”  

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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