Hope for those who hold the signs

IMG_0604(1)Jail time, tickets, and shame are often common results for those who hold signs begging for food, money or other basic needs.

Now, the federal court says this is just not allowed.

James Speet of Grand Rapids was one of those who faced multiple prosecutions. He was repeatedly arrested and received ticket after ticket for his “I need a job, God Bless,” cardboard sign which he held around some of Grand Rapids’ more popular areas.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan brought the issue of Michigan’s Anti-Begging Statute to the court claiming it highly unconstitutional.  The court ruled unanimously against the criminalization of peaceful panhandling in public places.  The lower court’s decision claims:

“Begging, or the soliciting of alms, is a form of solicitation that the First Amendment protects.”

Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan, points out that legally, the law does not exempt the poor asking for money or food. She explains that the constitution makes no differentiation between the cardboard signs and organizations asking for money for charities, like Bell Ringers.

“Asking for help… that’s a very central protection in our constitution,” explained Aukerman. “The court said that doesn’t just apply for middle class kids asking for money for their football field, but also for those who are asking for money for their basic needs: in order to eat, order to pay for a place to stay for the night out of the cold.”

Speet told the ACLU that does not see the harm in his signs.

“I see people holding up signs throughout the city advertising restaurants or protesting, and they don’t get arrested or ticketed,” Speet said, “I don’t understand why my sign was any different because I’m homeless and looking for a job.”

According to Aukerman, perhaps there is a better way to handle the poor than with prosecution. Punishing them for seeking help is not going to bring them out of their situation.

However, police need to find a way to handle those who are often on the streets asking for money.

“I’m a parent too, and when I walk with my kids and someone asks for money,” said Aukerman, “it’s hard to explain why some people don’t have enough to eat. That makes us all uncomfortable. But the fact that people are poor doesn’t go away if we sweep it under the rug. And it certainly doesn’t go away if we put people in jail and make it harder for them.”

The city of Grand Rapids has enforced the anti-begging law nearly four hundred times between 2009 and 2011.

-Alana Holland, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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