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ACLU Calls City Panhandling Ordinances in Iowa Unconstitutional

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Monday, September 17, 2018   

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa is among 12 states targeted for its panhandling ordinances by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the ACLU.

Those organizations and more than a dozen others are demanding Iowa cities repeal laws that prohibit panhandlers from asking people on the street for money. The Iowa chapter identified ordinances in three cities: Council Bluffs, Des Moines and Grimes.

Phillip Brown, legal fellow with the ACLU of Iowa, said such laws essentially criminalize poverty.

"These laws make it illegal to ask for help, and they are restrictions on any individual's free speech rights to go on a sidewalk and say what they would like to,” Brown said. “They are restrictions based on what you are saying and where you are."

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to eradicating homelessness. More than 240 panhandling ordinances in a dozen states have been targeted.

Brown noted the recent case of Alexis Ostlund, a homeless woman who was told to move along by a police officer as she held a "Free Hugs" sign with a bowl for money outside a coffee shop in Des Moines. He said such reactions typically perpetuate a downward spiral of poverty.

"These laws simply aren't solutions; they don't solve any problems,” Brown said. “Housing services really are the only solutions to homelessness. It's actually penalizing people just for needing help and asking for it."

The ACLU said 25 panhandling ordinances in the U.S. have been struck down as unconstitutional and 31 cities have repealed their ordinances. Brown said he believes the lack of consistency in municipal ordinances has harmful consequences.

"Enforcement doesn't always look the same,” he said. “So some people may be sent to jail, they may be arrested, they may be given fines. But other people may just be asked to move along or told that they can't do this anymore. And any of those enforcement mechanisms are unconstitutional."

In Des Moines it's a misdemeanor to solicit funds without a license and punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $750,000 for a first offense.


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