City officials in Albuquerque, New Mexico agreed not to enforce a controversial anti-panhandling ordinance passed unanimously in November until pending litigation is settled.
The agreement came after city officials completed secretive negotiations with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Goodwin Proctor LLC on February 9.
The law, billed as a pedestrian safety ordinance, makes it illegal for individuals to panhandle on the sides of freeway entrances, exit ramps, or medians. It also outlaws giving food, money, or hygiene products to panhandlers from a vehicle in these areas.
In January, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city’s ordinance, which they say criminalizes free speech in public areas.
The ordinance has faced public backlash from activists, particularly Albuquerque’s ANSWER Coalition, and is seen by many as a move to further criminalize activities associated with homelessness. If enforced, it would only be the latest in a growing trend of cities criminalizing life-sustaining tactics used by homeless people.
Since 2006, activities like camping in public, sleeping in public, living in cars, and panhandling have been increasingly targeted across the country, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP). Out of 187 cities they reviewed in their “Housing Not Handcuffs” report, 61 percent banned panhandling in particular places and 27 percent banned it citywide.
Maria Martinez Sanchez, the ACLU attorney handling the case, said the Albuquerque ordinance “has always been about pushing homeless people and poor people out of public view.”
In an interview with Shadowproof, Sanchez noted it is a “pretty serious thing [for the government] to curb speech in public forums.”
“A sidewalk, a median, those are quintessential public forums that people have traditionally and historically used to express themselves, to get messages out, to confront problems they see in the system,” Sanchez added.
In that vein, Sanchez suggested the ordinance is so broadly worded it may now be illegal for pedestrians in Albuquerque to hand out leaflets to drivers on the side of the road, thus making it more difficult to use certain public spaces for political speech.
Panhandling, though perhaps less overtly political, can still represent powerful public statements in addition to life-sustaining resources, according to Sanchez.
“On a deeper level, [panhandling] is a speech that really confronts drivers, citizens, whoever encounters this person asking for money, with the inequities in our system. So just holding a sign saying ‘I’m homeless, can you please help me?’ is a very, very strong statement about where we are as a country as far as economic justice and economic equity,” Sanchez said.
Thirty percent of people 18 years and younger live below the poverty line in New Mexico, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data. Among those, 36.2 percent are under the age of five, giving New Mexico the highest child poverty rate of any state in the country.
Poverty is particularly visible in Albuquerque. As part of their Point-In-Time Count report, the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness counted 1,318 people experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque with the help of local agencies on the night of January 23, 2017.
For comparison, a January 24 Point-In-Time Count [PDF] report from the same year attempted to count people experiencing homelessness across the state, with the exception of Albuquerque, found 1,186 people. In other words, Albuquerque’s homeless community counted over 100 more people than the rest of the state combined.
“At the heart of the homelessness crisis is the lack of affordable housing available to people who need it,” Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), said in an interview with Shadowproof.
Bauman pointed out wages have not kept up with the rising cost of rent and federal housing subsidies had declined at a rate of 10,000 less affordable housing units per year.
“Enforcement of the ordinance will cost taxpayers money on a strategy that will not solve the root problem,” Bauman said, arguing for investment in a housing-first strategy.
A 2016 report from the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Social Research followed the Albuquerque Heading Home Initiative, a program that works to end homeless by providing housing to people and subsequently offering them additional services. It found taxpayers saved $1.78 for every dollar invested into the program. Other case studies have had even more dramatic results.
The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found, in their region, the annual cost of leaving people homeless — the costs of policing them, throwing them in jail for largely non-violent offenses, and providing medical care — were three times as expensive as providing them with permanent housing and caseworkers.
Despite studies like this, the political will across the country for large-scale housing-first policies has been largely absent. This may be due to the stigma and fear among the public of homelessness, which leaves those without shelter particularly vulnerable to legislation that increases the frequency with which they are policed.
Since starting the case, Sanchez registered how uncomfortable seeing homeless people made some people feel and how much derision there is toward the community. One person, Sanchez said, told her that homeless people were like cockroaches.
Such vitriol and the aggressive policing that accompany it are part and parcel to the chilling effect the ordinance has had.
One of the plaintiffs in the ACLU’s case, a 66-year-old woman with health problems who panhandles to afford a motel at night, was temporarily forced onto the streets because the ordinance prevented her from making enough money. Despite the current stay of enforcement, she’s now more afraid to ask for money in public due to the harassment she believes she will receive from police.
“For someone who has nothing, to put them in jail for 90 days or assess them a $500 fine and thrust them into this really messed up criminal justice system we have does nothing to address the root causes of poverty, which is why people are panhandling in the first place,” Sanchez said.