Northampton Resists Anti-Panhandling Law

By David Beyer of Poverty is not a Crime

Since its proposal by Northampton City Council, anti-panhandling Ordinance 285-53 has seen a wide spectrum of public opposition, with resistance from the homeless, from business owners, street performers, students and other community members. This ordinance would, in addition to adding civil penalties to the existent criminal punishments for "aggressive solicitation," enforce a number of restrictions on asking for money, banning it in many downtown areas with high foot traffic. It would prohibit anyone from asking for money on the sidewalk, on public benches, using crates, under overpasses or fifteen feet away from too many locations to count -- banks, bus stops and patios, just to name a few. In other words, Northampton City Council's response to unmet needs and the homelessness crisis is to push the victims of capitalism out of sight and out of mind by silencing them, rather than addressing the causes of poverty and homelessness.

This ordinance, unconstitutional under the First Amendment, would effectively criminalize a necessary lifeline for Northampton's low income and homeless populations. These populations already suffer from a lack of adequate housing, from shelters with often draconian rules and month-long waiting lists, and from a lack of regular meals.

Anyone who does not obey Ordinance 285-53 would face fines ranging from $50 to $300. Since most panhandlers cannot pay these fines, they would be entered into the Criminal Offender Record Information database. This would make them ineligible for vital social services and give them jail time, or subject them to "alternative treatments."

This ordinance is far from an isolated case. Atlanta, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Chicago have enacted similar anti-poor ordinances with nearly identical methods and language. These laws, which small towns and cities are increasingly adopting, aim to "cleanse" the streets of people in need. They form part of a larger program of violent gentrification to increase tourism and luxury sales profits. To see how this will be accomplished (beside rising rent costs and foreclosure rates), one need not look further than Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins, who has eloquently declared, "We might have to [move people along in the streets] if they're in the wrong place."

In Northampton, as in many cities and towns throughout the world, gentrification includes the formation of a Business Improvement District or a collusion of businesses that practice urban renewal by privatizing once-public spaces, hiring off-duty cops to patrol the streets, and turning once-vibrant communities into shopping centers. This process also includes the use of government-corporate "solutions to homelessness" that build affordable housing projects in far-away host towns fit for profit, but not for people.

We responded to these problems by creating Poverty Is Not a Crime, a group of the currently or formerly homeless and their allies dedicated to organizing against this ordinance and against gentrification, while demanding long-overdue community resources such as food, shelter and social services. We started with a series of four demonstrations that increased in size to about 100 people. These demonstrations were carried out in tandem with a public awareness campaign and a petition of 278 area residents against the ordinance.

Some of our demonstrations have combined resistance with celebration, in which demonstrators eat Food Not Bombs-supplied hot food and march through the streets with pots, pans, trumpets and cardboard signs, with chants such as, "The people, united, won't let this ordinance pass!" Another demonstration included a silent corridor of people in front of City Hall for councilors to walk through, as well as a vigil for a homeless man who froze to death a day after being kicked out of a shelter. "This man gave up on life," said Ira McKinley, a homeless community organizer. "This is what poverty does."

Despite the cancellation of the Public Safety subcommittee meeting where this anti-homeless ordinance was to be discussed, around 25 people attended the most recent demonstration on Jan. 6. On this day, we also began a boycott against the Gazebo, a lingerie store owned by the mouthpiece of this ordinance, who is now (in)famous for her statements in full support of gentrification. We expect that due to public action, the ordinance will, in its next draft, be toned down to one that prohibits blocking sidewalks. Though this may be a victory, such an ordinance could still pose a threat if designed and enforced with the motive of hiding people with needs.

We believe that the struggle for the right of the homeless to exist is tied to movements such as Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails, which strive to provide desperately needed food and shelter in a not-for-profit, participatory way. Because, ultimately, the solution to poverty will not be the fat, lounging frog statue collecting charity donations that our local government set up in the central square, but autonomous organization and rebellion against the deprivations of the highly unequal and unjust system under which we live.

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