In a settlement announced Tuesday, the city of Montgomery has agreed that it will immediately stop arresting or ticketing people who panhandle. The settlement serves as a resolution to a lawsuit filed in February by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), ACLU of Alabama, and the National Homelessness Law Center on behalf of people who panhandle.
The organizations challenged the enforcement of two unconstitutional state statutes that make it unlawful for anyone to “beg” or “solicit” and subject those who do to fines or jail.
In the same lawsuit, the group of organizations also sued Montgomery County and the state of Alabama for enforcement of the same statutes. That litigation is still pending. As part of the settlement, the city will stop fining or jailing people for panhandling and, in municipal-level cases, will drop all outstanding charges against people for panhandling and waive any outstanding fines and costs owed.
In addition, the city is giving SPLC $10,000 “to be used for charitable purposes on behalf of people experiencing homelessness.” SPLC intends to donate that money to Montgomery Pride United (MPU), which will use the funds to provide emergency financial assistance to people experiencing homelessness.
In 2019, the city of Montgomery passed an ordinance imposing mandatory jail time on people who panhandle. The law was later repealed after dozens of clergy, service providers, and people experiencing homelessness voiced their opposition at a city council meeting. However, the city continued to enforce two separate statutes that criminalize panhandling. Between July 2018 and December 2019, the city of Montgomery issued more than 400 citations enforcing these statutes.
In February, a lawsuit was filed against the city, Montgomery County and the state of Alabama on behalf of Jonathan Singleton and others who panhandle to challenge these statutes.
Mr. Singleton, a resident of Montgomery experiencing homelessness, was cited or arrested eight times for holding a sign that said: “HOMELESS. Today it is me, tomorrow it could be you.” Mr. Singleton struggles with chronic illness – including kidney failure and diabetes – which makes it difficult to maintain stable employment, housing, and healthcare. As a result, he relies on the assistance of others for survival.
“The city of Montgomery is doing the right thing by ending its enforcement of Alabama’s inhumane and unconstitutional laws that criminalize homelessness and poverty,” said Ellen Degnan, SPLC staff attorney. “Housing, not handcuffs, is the way to end homelessness. While the terms of this settlement – if correctly implemented – will help people who panhandle within the city limits of Montgomery, there are still thousands of Alabamians who remain at risk of being jailed or ticketed for simply asking for help.”
Each night, at least 3,200 Alabama residents, including more than 230 families and 290 veterans, experience homelessness, according to data from 2019. In Montgomery County, more than 350 people are homeless on any given night.
“Punishing people who ask for help is not only illegal and inhumane, it is also a waste of limited public resources that would be far better invested in housing and supportive services to people in need,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Homelessness Law Center. “In the midst of a national homelessness crisis, governments should be investing in proven solutions to homelessness – not wasting time and money on punitive approaches that only worsen the problem.”
Panhandling laws, including Alabama’s law criminalizing begging, have their origins in vagrancy laws that were designed to criminalize African-Americans after the Civil War. The discriminatory impact continues today, with people of color disproportionately harmed by laws that target individuals who panhandle because of a lack of stable housing or access to resources.
“Enforcement of state statutes and local ordinances criminalizing panhandling by homeless people violates the First Amendment,” said JaTaune Bosby, Executive Director for ACLU of Alabama. “Montgomery city officials must take this agreement seriously, ensuring that no person is criminalized for seeking assistance and finding better ways to address homelessness and the needs of those without housing in Montgomery.” The settlement is available here.
For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.