Organizations fight against panhandling prohibition in Huntington

Local grassroots community organization, On the Streets Committee, recently partnered with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, with support from the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, to write a letter demanding the repeal of Huntington’s bans on begging and solicitation, in favor of policies addressing root causes of extreme poverty.

In 2016, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless partnered with over 100 organizations throughout the country to kick-off their Housing Not Handcuffs campaign. The letter to Huntington is part of a broader coordinated effort by such groups, started last year, to repeal over 37 ordinances in eight different states.

“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said. “Housing, jobs and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities.”

On any given night in likely the wealthiest country in the history of the world, more than half-a-million people are experiencing homelessness, according to a 2018 report by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In Huntington alone, according to a 2019 count conducted by the Huntington-Cabell-Wayne Continuum of Care, more than 170 people experience homelessness each day, as reported by the Herald-Dispatch earlier this year. That number is down from homeless populations of over 190 in 2018, 205 in 2017 and 228 in 2016.

The letter to Huntington argues citizens’ First Amendment protections, as determined in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Norton v. Springfield, prohibit the targeting of speech requesting donations for punishment. Since the 2015 decision, more than 35 ordinances limiting soliciting donations have been determined unconstitutional in courts throughout the country. Additionally, 31 cities have since repealed such ordinances prior to being challenged by litigation.

Possible problem-solving programs and ideas recommended by the organizations challenging Huntington’s bans include homeless employment programs to provide income and access to other services to panhandlers and supportive housing units for homeless residents. Such programs exist in places like Albuquerque, New Mexico and Syracuse, New York, where panhandlers are provided opportunities for 40 hours of work each week to beautify and improve areas throughout the city.

Furthermore, in Charlotte, North Carolina, when the city implemented significantly more permanent supportive housing units, nights spent in jail by formerly homeless residents decreased by nearly 90 percent. The drastic decrease saved Charlotte nearly $2.5 million in just two years.

“Making it unlawful to ask for money has not changed the fact that people lack access to the resources they need and deserve,” Loree Stark, legal director for the WV ACLU, said. “Municipalities should take these unconstitutional laws off the books and instead work with community members in pursuit of constructive solutions to alleviate poverty and homelessness.”

Aaron Llewellyn, a member of Huntington’s On the Streets Committee, said those who panhandle have the same priorities as other citizens, and the city’s prohibition of soliciting and criminalization of poverty are mostly counterproductive in terms of genuinely combatting crime and homelessness.

“Most people do not enjoy having to panhandle. We do it because we need to,” Llewellyn said. “Most of the time, people are just trying to pay rent, pay a bill or keep from resorting to more desperate means.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].