Mayors of the three largest cities in DeSoto County have taken issue with a claim from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi regarding bans against panhandling in their communities.
This week’s letter from the ACLU of Mississippi, a communication nationally coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, demanded that 16 jurisdictions in Mississippi repeal their bans on panhandling. Three of the communities mentioned are in DeSoto County: Southaven, Olive Branch and Horn Lake.
“Since the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert finding heightened protections for free speech, every case brought against panhandling ordinances—more than 25 to date, including many with language similar to those found in these 16 Mississippi towns and cities, has found them unconstitutional,” the letter stated.
Jackson is the largest of the 16 mentioned cities. In the state capital, before a person may ask for money in public, he or she must present him or herself at the Jackson Police Department to be photographed and fingerprinted in order to obtain a permit.
“It is contrary to American values to require someone, before they can speak in public, to first inform the government and obtain a permit. It is cruel to require people begging for their daily existence to do so,” said Joshua Tom, Legal Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “We are demanding that any place in Mississippi with these unconstitutional ordinances take them off the books.”
When asked to comment about the ACLU claims, Olive Branch Mayor Scott Phillips said in an email response, “The City of Olive Branch continually reviews its public safety ordinances for compliance with constitutional law. The City of Olive Branch does not have an ordinance that regulates ‘panhandling.’ In 2018 the City repealed a ROW solicitation ordinance due to the fact that there are general state statutes that allow the City to accomplish the same public safety goals.”
Phillips went on to say, “The City also revised its door-to-door commercial solicitation ordinance to better reflect the public safety goals and to more clearly address certain free speech issues. The ACLU should be aware of these changes and the City of Olive Branch should not be included in a list of communities with problematic ordinances.”
Southaven, Mississippi’s third-largest city, should also not be included on the ACLU list, according to Mayor Darren Musselwhite.
“The City does not have this type of ordinance,” Musselwhite stated. “We do have ordinances for public safety which restrict people in public street right-of-ways. This has caused some questions from this organization in the past, but we have answered all of their questions.”
Replying to a request for comment, Horn Lake Mayor Allen Latimer said his city is reviewing its ordinances.
“We’ve turned it over to our attorney and he is checking it out to see if it needs any revisions,” Latimer said. “If it does, we’ll make the revisions that protect the constitutional rights of all the people.”
The cities the ACLU said it had targeted in their claims include Jackson, Gulfport, Southaven, Meridian, Greenville, Olive Branch, Horn Lake, Clinton, Ridgeland, Starkville, Vicksburg, Pascagoula, Brandon, Clarksdale, Natchez and Greenwood.
Since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, the ACLU said 100 percent of lawsuits against cities with panhandling bans have been successful in striking down the bans, and at least an additional 31 cities have repealed their ordinances.
“No one wants to see poor people have to beg for money,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “But until all their basic needs, such as food, health care and housing are met, they have the right to ask for help.”
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, together with the National Coalition for the Homeless and more than 100 other organizations, launched the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign (www.housingnothandcuffs.org) in 2016 to emphasize criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness.
“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities.”
Bob Bakken is Managing Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.