Altoona is among eight Wisconsin cities that advocates for the homeless are targeting for repeal of their local anti-panhandling laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, in coordination with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, sent letters Tuesday to those cities demanding they get rid of their panhandling bans.
Since a 2015 Supreme Court decision in a free speech case, courts have struck down 25 other city ordinances against panhandling as unconstitutional, the two groups state in a news release. Another 31 cities repealed their ordinances, they added.
“These cities should take these unconstitutional laws off the books and instead look for more constructive ways to address the needs of our fellow citizens experiencing homelessness and poverty,” Chris Ott, executive director of the state ACLU chapter, said in the news release.
As of Tuesday evening, Altoona officials said they had not yet received the letter and could therefore not address the ACLU’s specific requests.
However, city attorney John Behling defended the city’s ordinance as constitutional and intended primarily to address public safety.
“When the ordinance was drafted, it took into consideration all issues of free speech, freedom to assemble and other protected rights,” he said.
Under its public peace, morals and welfare section of the city’s code of ordinances, Altoona has panhandling banned in certain places and circumstances.
Altoona city law prohibits panhandling at bus stops, intersections, on buses, at sidewalk cafes, within 20 feet of ATMs and banks and on private property.
A person sitting or lounging on sidewalks is not allowed to panhandle; however, it is legal to ask a passer-by for money while standing or walking on sidewalks. But aggressively following people and asking for money is against the city’s law.
“It’s more of a public safety ordinance than a panhandling ordinance,” Behling said.
The ordinance also does not prohibit panhandling in other public places, including city parks.
Fines for violating city code range from $1 to $500 for first offenses and $10 to $1,000 for subsequent violations. People unable to pay their fines can be jailed, according to Altoona’s city code, except for those who are indigent.
In addition to Altoona, other Wisconsin cities with panhandling laws targeted by ACLU of Wisconsin are Glendale, Mequon, Racine, Superior, Shorewood, Waukesha and Wauwatosa.
Tuesday’s letters were part of a coordinated campaign targeting more than 240 anti-panhandling laws across 12 states, according to the ACLU of Wisconsin news release.
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