Montgomery, Ala.— Alabama’s panhandling laws violate the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech, according to a lawsuit filed today seeking to immediately stop the city of Montgomery and Alabama from enforcing two state statutes prohibiting panhandling. The current laws make it unlawful for anyone to “beg” or “solicit” and subjects those who do to fines or jail. The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU of Alabama, and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
“Alabama’s laws criminalizing homelessness are inhumane and unconstitutional,” said Micah West, senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Housing, not handcuffs, is the way to end homelessness. Alabama should dedicate more resources to housing, shelter, and healthcare that would meet those needs rather than jailing or ticketing people that ask for help.”
Jonathan Singleton, 44, a resident of Montgomery experiencing homelessness, was cited or arrested eight times for holding a sign that said: “HOMELESS. Today it is me, tomorrow it could be you.”
Jonathan struggles with chronic illness—including kidney failure and diabetes—which makes it difficult to maintain stable employment, housing, and healthcare. As a result, he relies on the assistance of others for survival. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jonathan and others who panhandle.
“Enforcement of state statutes and local ordinances criminalizing panhandling by homeless people violates the First Amendment,” said Randall Marshall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. “We hope that governmental officials will take heed and come up with better ways to address homelessness in Montgomery.”
“Punishing people who ask for help is not only illegal and inhumane, it is also a waste of limited public resources that would be far better invested in housing and supportive services to people in need,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “In the midst of a national homelessness crisis, governments should be investing in proven solutions to homelessness – not wasting time and money on punitive approaches that only worsen the problem.”
Since July 2018, the city of Montgomery has issued over 400 citations to enforce the state’s laws banning panhandling. Each night, at least 3,200 Alabama residents, including over 230 families and 290 veterans, experienced homelessness, according to data from 2019. In Montgomery County, over 350 people are homeless on any given night. During the 2016–2017 school year, at least 14,000 public school students experienced homelessness.
In 2019, the city of Montgomery passed an ordinance imposing additional penalties on panhandling, including mandatory jail time. This ordinance was later repealed by Montgomery’s City Council.
Panhandling laws, including Alabama’s law criminalizing begging, have their origins in vagrancy laws that were designed to criminalize African Americans after the Civil War.* The discriminatory impact continues today, with people of color disproportionately harmed by laws that target individuals who panhandle because of a lack of stable housing or access to resources.
SPLC’s letter sent in July 2019, to Montgomery’s Mayor Strange urging a veto.
NLCHP’s letter sent in July 2019 urging a veto of the ordinance.
SPLC’s statement when Montgomery repealed part of the panhandling law with new Mayor Steven Reed.
*See U.S. Supreme Court case City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 54 n.20 (1999).
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama is freedom’s watchdog; we work in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend the individual rights and personal freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education. This work is supported by the Housing Not Handcuffs initiative as well as the Law Center’s #IAskForHelpBecause campaign.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org.