[Spotlight] Panhandling in Greensboro
By: Omar Obregon-Cuebas
On April 24, the Greensboro City Council repealed the ordinance requiring a license for panhandlers. The City Council responded to the decisions of federal courts expanding the free speech doctrine and therefore affecting panhandling laws. The decisions started with the Supreme Court’s decision in Reed v. Gilbert which further expanded the notion of free speech and what is allowed such as panhandling. Cities across the country have been forced to repeal panhandling laws in response to this Supreme Court decision. Different iterations of panhandling laws exist across the country. There those that regulate “aggressive behavior” and those that restrict who can panhandle. The Greensboro City Council changed its ordinance from a restriction-based to behavior regulation-based.
The City Council replaced the ordinance believing that it was targeting the poor and homeless of the community. The new ordinance focuses on regulating panhandling behavior. Rather than require a panhandling license and criminal background check, the new ordinance targets panhandling that is disruptive to the public.
In response to the City Council meeting on the panhandling ordinance, the newly formed group Homeless Union of Greensboro hosted a press conference and protest on April 24 before the council meeting.
The main topic of the conference and protest was the existence of any panhandling law no matter the wording. For many, the existence of such a law is a public and legal attack against the poor and homeless of Greensboro.
Members of the Homeless Union of Greensboro and supporters spoke at a makeshift podium to orate their grievances.
“My clients today are still getting arrested for exercising their right to free speech,” Attorney Brennan Aberle said, calling the ordinance unconstitutional.
Aberle and his group of attorneys have put together evidence of different panhandling ordinances across the nation that are similar in nature to the one Greensboro has passed.
Richard Vaught, who has been homeless for the last few months said the law should be replaced completely.
“Our lives are more important than politicians getting re-elected,” he said. “It’s what we do to survive… We’re not here to fight anyone, we’re just trying to survive.”
Suzanne Marshall, homeless for over six years, spoke about her long-term experience of homelessness. She admonished those in Greensboro who have turned a blind eye to the struggles she and others have felt.
“Listen to what we are saying, come out here and experience what we experience,” she said. “Won’t nobody help us, that’s why we are asking you to help us. Live in a tent for a week, month, a year; you won’t do it.”
The press conference and protest ended with the rallying call of “house keys not handcuffs.”
The City Council voted to keep a panhandling ordinance, however, Councilwoman Sharon Hightower requested a re-vote, as she had a different position.
The re-vote took place on May 15 leading to a continuation of the newly passed ordinance. The 5-4 vote means that there will be a second vote because a supermajority was not reached. The second vote will take place in June.