Everyone has seen it before: the filthy clothes, the piece of cardboard with a message scrawled on it in marker, and the ever-present cup of the panhandler. Sometimes it’s passive panhandling, simply sitting on the ground, or holding open a door for people without saying anything. Other times, it’s aggressive: chasing people down, engaging in long conversations, or running out into the street to passing motorists. Panhandlers are blatant reminders to both city officials and other citizens that the desperate are everywhere and no one knows what to do about it.
The city council in Boise, Idaho, may not know how to fix the problems of poverty and homelessness in their city, but they have taken steps to reduce the number of reminders people see each day. They passed a resolution that has banned aggressive panhandling and placed very strict limitations on where and how people might engage in the passive practice. There were about 40 people protesting the measure, singing “We Shall Overcome” and shouting their complaints.
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Like many cities that have enacted such laws, officials hope to reduce the visibility of the homeless which they say is good for businesses and makes the area more enjoyable to visitors. In short, panhandlers make people uncomfortable. However, many of these laws have been ruled unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment.
However, this does not stop cities like Boise or Indianapolis, Indiana from considering such measures. In New York, their panhandling ban, known as the loitering law, was struck down as unconstitutional, yet law enforcement has still arrested so many using the law that panhandlers were given class-action status in 2007. It’s not just panhandlers that are affected by this law either, in 2009 an article from the First Amendment Center details how street performers may actually be classified as aggressive panhandlers.