To the editor,
With the Coronavirus pandemic causing deep economic stress in our region, state and beyond, poverty and homelessness have become more dire and apparent. At the same time we are dealing with the pandemic, and the disproportionate impacts that are being experienced by both low-income people and people of color, our nation is also confronting issues caused by systemic racism, including the need for criminal justice reform and a new way of policing our communities to ensure equity and justice. With all of this in mind, I was surprised to see that the Town of Colonie is proposing a law that would criminalize panhandling, including individuals standing on the side of a road asking for help or money, and deem that “aggressive behavior.”
The proposed law includes seven definitions of aggressive behavior or manner, some of them clearly “aggressive” such as touching people or threatening people, and some that are frankly quite benign, such as standing on the side of a road. For engaging in these various behaviors while soliciting money or other help, either verbally or with a sign, individuals could be issued a “violation.” The person issued the violation would then be required to go to court, and if convicted of violating the new law, could be fined between $25 and $250 or imprisoned for up to 15 days.
The proposed law fails to solve the problems facing individuals engaging in panhandling. By virtue of the very act of begging for help, money or otherwise, the individuals engaged in panhandling clearly are of low means. Charging panhandlers as criminals and punishing them with a fine they likely have no means to pay is nonsensical policy and does nothing to address the underlying issues causing panhandling. It will, however, likely exacerbate the economic hardship being faced by individuals engaging in panhandling, and prevent these individuals from overcoming the adversity they are facing by creating debt and criminal records.
The proposed law may increase legal risk for the town. In 2017, the City of Sacramento, California adopted a local ordinance against “aggressive panhandling.” In 2018, the city was sued by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and Legal Services of Norther California to halt enforcement of the ordinance on the grounds it was unconstitutional. A federal judge filed an injunction and the city then deleted the ordinance. Likewise, in 2020, the ACLU of Indiana filed suit against Indianapolis, Indiana for their anti-panhandling law. In 2019, a federal judge ruled against the City of Hot Springs, Arkansas for its panhandling law. In fact, following the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, courts around the country have overturned local panhandling laws on the grounds related to free speech. As a taxpayer, I am concerned that enactment of this local law would open up the Town of Colonie to similar lawsuits. This liability could cost taxpayer dollars, while failing to solve the underlying problems causing the behavior concerning town officials.
The proposed law may prevent local charities and youth groups from fundraising. Several years ago, I passed through an intersection in town where local firefighters were walking through traffic stopped at a red light, holding out their boots to collect money to support the local fire department. Much like when I give a panhandler a dollar while waiting at the light to leave Target, I rolled down my car window and gave the firefighter some money by dropping it in his boot. Another example would be the many carwashes that local youth teams hold around town. Often times these groups hold up signs while standing roadside asking people to come pay them for a carwash to support their cause. Both of these activities would meet the definition of “solicit” in the proposed local law. Furthermore, they would be in violation of the local law because they would be “prohibited conduct” as the proposal is drafted. Unless the Town plans to selectively enforce this law, these firefighters and youth groups would be considered criminals and could be fined or jailed if convicted. If the town plans to selectively enforce the law, that would again open the town up to litigation.
I appreciate the work the town is doing to provide social services and support residents who may be struggling financially. Rather than advance a flawed proposal that will not solve the problem of poverty and panhandling, the town should refocus on how local agencies, both within the town and in partnership with Albany County or the state, can increase services that address poverty, hunger and other issues that individuals engaging in panhandling may be experiencing. The town has a rich network of not-for-profit and religious organizations that may be willing to engage and partner to address these issues. Finally, the town can and should be working through the Planning and Economic Development Department to ensure that there are housing options available and affordable to people with lower incomes, so that housing security is improved.