Friday, 1 July 2011

Beggar's Belief

Homeless men sue over US begging ban

Five homeless men are suing a city in Virginia, claiming that a new law against begging violates their right to freedom of speech under the US constitution.

The group, which is led by an illiterate man in his 50s called Albert Clatterbuck, alleges that authorities in Charlottesville are illegally restricting an "expressive activity protected by the First Amendment".

They have been banned from asking for money at the Charlottesville downtown mall, which according to city tourism literature is "one of the most beautiful and successful" shopping areas in the US.

Visitors to the mall can "enjoy dining al fresco at a number of fine restaurants, shop at any of the unique boutiques or meander by flowing fountains", it says.

A new law that may help maintain the mall's respectable image bans "soliciting money or other things of value" within a 50-foot radius, whether verbally or via an "outstretched hand, an extended cup or hat".

Mr Clatterbuck – along with Christopher Martin, Earl McCraw, John Jordan and Michael Sloan – says the city is stopping them from seeking "funds for their own wellbeing".

"Each of the plaintiffs is impecunious and reliant to a certain extent on begging to sustain himself," states the lawsuit, which says it is unfair to criminalise some forms of speech while allowing others.

The men, who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, are seeking an injunction against the law and financial compensation.

"They just want to assert their rights," said their lawyer, Jeffrey Fogel. "This is not just about homeless people, it's about what the city restricted all of us from doing in public places".

"There has been lots of negative reaction locally," Mr Fogel told The Daily Telegraph, comparing the case to black civil rights cases of the 20th century. "People say 'these bums should get a job'.

"But it's not like they don't want to. They are mentally or physically unable, and have the right to request assistance."

Mr Fogel said the new law was part of a broader trend of scapegoating poor people for America's economic woes. "Plenty of people born with a silver spoon in their mouth are laggards all their life," he said.

However Dave Norris, the Mayor of Charlottesville, rejected the accusation. He said the law was needed to stop beggars distracting drivers at two important road crossings and annoying diners at the mall's restaurants. But they are free to "panhandle" elsewhere in the city, he said.

"The restriction also applies to musicians and people trying to raise money for non-profit groups," said Mr Norris. "We're not unfairly targeting homeless people. As long as it's applied equally, there's no problem."

Mr Norris said Charlottesville was a "very compassionate community" investing heavily in schemes to help the homeless. "We're certainly not turning a blind eye to the problem," he said. "But there's better ways to help them than giving money on the street.".

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