Guest Opinion: City’s reversal welcome in light of judge’s panhandling ruling


January 14, 2014 

“Anything helps. God bless.”

— Anonymous

Thankfully, those experiencing poverty in Boise have an equal right to free speech. The news of a preliminary injunction halting enforcement of Boise’s anti-solicitation ordinance gave many hope that city officials would stop ignoring both constitutional law and the indomitable voice of advocacy for individuals and families experiencing poverty. And in fact, within two weeks of the court’s decision, the city appears ready to rescind the most controversial portion of its law at tonight’s City Council meeting.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge wrote in his opinion that “the public’s interest in restricting a person from asking for money in a nonaggressive manner does not outweigh a person’s right to make a request for a charitable contribution,” and that “business owners and residents simply not liking panhandlers in acknowledged public areas does not rise to a significant governmental interest.”

In light of the judge’s ruling, it remains difficult to understand why city leaders felt the ordinance was so necessary that they appeared brazen in the face of inevitable litigation and disregarded the voices of so many along the way. The city cited complaints from business owners, yet a mere 11 related complaints were received by City Hall over a five-year period (2008-2013 public records).

Councilwoman Lauren McLean, who voted against the ordinances, acknowledged that the Downtown Business Association had “worked very hard on this.” However, very little support was generated in the community, which was reflected at the public hearing in late July when only a few testified affirmatively. In contrast, the mayor and council heard exquisite testimony from more than 50 citizens, including highly respected leaders in the homeless-service-provider community, who urged them to abandon the ordinances.

The law was also heavily spun as intended to protect citizens against “aggressive” panhandling, while the public was curiously distracted from an existing aggressive solicitation ordinance. To be sure, police were citing people for aggressive solicitation last summer, and have issued many citations over the past several years. There was never a public explanation why the existing aggressive ordinance needed an overhaul. Perhaps because it opened the door to introduce not-so-subtle restrictions for nonaggressive solicitation, which was specifically enjoined by the court and soon to be retracted by the city.

While it is unfortunate that city leaders chose the path of costly litigation to acquire perspective on this issue, tonight’s anticipated action still represents progress. Homelessness, in cities all over this country, has become perhaps our most pressing civil and human rights issue. We cannot afford to see class segregation rear its ugly head, and certainly not in our downtown core. Rather, government must dare to respond with compassion, innovative solutions, and with a sense of social justice.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it this way: “[True compassion] comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The gift of encountering a person begging, regardless of our judgments, is that it reminds us we can and ought to do more as a society to address their needs in proactive, meaningful, and yes, charitable, ways — which may include giving to any of our local nonprofits that serve homeless individuals and families. To attempt to remove the downtrodden from our sight, and potentially criminalize them, not only takes away the opportunity to act in a flash of charitable good will but also invites us to forget about their needs altogether. May it never be so in Boise.

Greg Morris is the president of the Boise/Ada County Coalition for the Homeless and executive director of Charitable Assistance To Community’s Homeless (CATCH) Inc.

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