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Punished for making a plea: ACLU cracks down on anti-panhandling laws

Posted at 5:12 PM, Aug 31, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-31 18:30:56-04

Right now, communities across Northeast Ohio are coming under fire for ordinances on the books some believe violate the constitution.

This week, in a letter sent to more than three dozen cities, the ACLU of Ohio wants mayors and city council members in more than three dozen cities to scrap ordinances that specifically target those down on their luck. The ACLU says they are getting punished for making a plea.

"We know that at least some cities are still enforcing anti-panhandling laws," said Joseph Mead, ACLU attorney.

With recent cases of homeless people being harassed, arrested or cited for simply asking for help, Mead said it is time for communities to re-examine their laws.

"There's a right to free speech, not a right to be free from speech. Simply somebody asking for a donation is not a problem that cities need to be worried about," said Mead.

Mead said these ordinances are often used to keep homeless people out of popular areas.

"The public spaces belong to all of us, including people experiencing homelessness," said Mead.

The ACLU said some of the cities targeted are still enforcing anti-panhandling laws, despite the consistent trend of the courts striking them down.

“It's time to update your laws to be constitutionally-compliant, and there may be consequences if you don't," said Mead.

This latest push comes on the heels of the ACLU taking legal action against ordinances in Cleveland and Akron.

"Both cities repealed it as a result, so litigation is a possibility against any of these cities," said Mead.

At the end of the day, Mead said these ordinances do nothing to solve the issue of homelessness.

"In fact, it can make it worse by imposing fines and fees and arrest record, criminal history which all of those things make it harder to climb out of homelessness," said Mead.

News 5 reached out to several of the cities that received a letter from the ACLU.

The Mayor of Eastlake, Dennis Morley, said the begging ordinance in his city has been on the books since 1967 and is not currently enforced. He does not see a reason to go to council right now.

Over in Oberlin, John Clarke, the city's law director, said they are looking into their ordinance and take the ACLU'S request seriously.

In South Euclid, Keith Ari Benjamin, the Director of Community Services, said the city’s law has been on the books for 30 years and there have been no recent cases of people being ticketed, cited or arrested.