News & Politics » Miscellany

More Than a Little Change

The city admits its panhandling ordinance was unconstitutional.



On a typical morning Ronald Davis fishes a paper coffee cup out of a garbage can, wipes it out with his shirt, and plants himself on the Monroe Street bridge, near the Mercantile Exchange. With his back pressed against its steel frame, he shakes his cup and asks people to help the homeless. "I give all the people respect," he says. "I don't be harassing them. I don't be offending them. Never."

The 51-year-old former construction worker has been panhandling in this spot for a few years now, ever since his leg was injured on a job. He has regular tippers--or "customers," as he calls them. "All my customers like me," he says. "They all know me. They look out for me so I can get me a hotel room and something to eat." And when people give nothing, he says, "I just tell them, 'Have a beautiful day. God bless you.'"

Until last year, people asking for change on the streets of Chicago ran the risk of jail time--whether or not they asked politely. A panhandling ordinance defined the very act of begging as disorderly conduct, and getting arrested was par for the course for many of the city's homeless. Davis says he got picked up three or four times a week on average, sometimes twice in a day.

"They'd handcuff you out here and treat you like a dog," he says. "They take you down there to the police lockup, then you have to get in one of those little cells that's got air-conditioning on you. You freeze to death." There were times, he says, when he was detained from 9 AM one morning to 5 AM the next, times when police would remark that at least he could finally get a good rest. "I say, 'Man, I don't want your kind of rest.'"

Davis and two other homeless people who'd been repeatedly arrested or ticketed for panhandling sued the city in September 2001, claiming its ordinance against begging violated their First Amendment rights. (A fourth named plaintiff was later tacked onto the case.) Earlier this month the city agreed to cough up nearly a half million dollars for treating panhandlers like criminals.

The class-action suit (which I wrote about in the Reader on March 1, 2002) was the brainchild of Mark Weinberg, who along with fellow attorneys Gary Caplan and Tom Morrissey argued that asking for change was constitutionally protected speech--no different than asking someone for the time or for directions. Weinberg thought the ordinance reflected a societal trend toward the criminalization of poverty and an overall mean-spiritedness on the part of lawmakers, who seemed to have no qualms about kicking people when they were down. He says his work on the case has done nothing to dispel that impression.

Shortly after Weinberg filed the suit, the city responded that it rarely enforced the panhandling ordinance. But, he says, "we found out there had been 1,700 arrests and 3,000 tickets in two years." The city agreed to stop enforcing the ordinance while the case was pending, yet panhandlers kept getting threatened with arrest, arrested, and ticketed--at $500 a crack. In March 2002 Weinberg, citing more than 100 such cases, asked Judge Nan Nolan for an injunction prohibiting the police from arresting anyone else under the ordinance. He and the other panhandlers' lawyers argued that the city hadn't effectively communicated its nonenforcement policy to police and compared their case to one in New York City in which a blanket ban on panhandling had been found unconstitutional. The judge agreed, the city voluntarily repealed the ordinance, and the parties began negotiating a settlement.

Yet panhandlers were still being ticketed and arrested. To keep them off the streets, police had dusted off three rarely enforced ordinances against congregating on bridges, obstructing traffic on bridges, and soliciting charitable donations without a permit. Weinberg discovered that not a single person had been arrested for obstructing traffic on a bridge in the two years before he filed the suit, but that from January to April 2002 police had detained around 50 people for it, including Davis. And the ordinance prohibiting the solicitation of charitable donations without a permit had previously been used mostly to crack down on people hawking M&M's.

In the discovery phase of the lawsuit Weinberg came across an internal police memo suggesting 21 "alternative charges" that might be used in the wake of the city directive not to enforce the panhandling ordinance. "You can change a law," he says, "but not an attitude."

Still, he was trying. The settlement negotiations dragged on for a year. At first the city refused to agree to monetary damages, offering instead to distribute goods and services to the homeless community--including 1,500 pairs of thermal underwear, 2,500 hygiene kits, and access to the Department of Human Services' mobile medical clinic. Weinberg says the offer was an insult--the goods and services were already available to the plaintiffs, and besides, long johns were hardly adequate compensation for people whose rights had been violated.

On August 1 the city and the panhandlers' attorneys finally agreed to the nearly half-million-dollar settlement, which will become official at the next court date, in early September. (A city spokeswoman admitted that the panhandling ordinance was unconstitutional but wouldn't comment on the settlement.)

According to Weinberg, under the agreement the city will pay the four named plaintiffs $1,000 apiece. People who've been arrested for panhandling between September 6, 1999, and the day the settlement is finalized will receive $400 (no matter how many times they were arrested); those who were ticketed will receive $50. If all the claims filed before the cutoff date exceed $99,000, the amount of the awards will be reduced proportionately. In addition, $25,000 will go to cover administrative costs; the remaining $350,000 will be divvied up among the panhandlers' lawyers.

Weinberg also says that as part of the settlement, the city has agreed to include a directive in police recruits' First Amendment training materials that forbids them from using the three old ordinances to arrest or ticket people solely for panhandling.

About 4,000 people are eligible for some form of compensation, though only a few are likely to collect. According to Weinberg, in similar cases with transient populations only about 5 percent of eligible claimants have come forward to collect their damages. The city has agreed to funnel any unclaimed portion of the settlement money to the Department of Human Services for its homeless outreach programs.

"It wasn't about the money. It was just about the harassment," says Davis. "I would have been happy just striking that law out of the way, about you can't ask no other man for some help when you down and out." But he hopes the thousand dollars he's owed will help him get back on his feet. "It's hard to get a job when you got to sit here and struggle for survival," he says. "Plus sometimes my appearance don't be too hot. It turns them off." He stays at a flophouse that charges $16 a night, but says he can get a better deal--about $6 a night--if he rents a room for a month. "The first thing I'm going to do is get a roof over my head and then get me some clothes and stuff and maybe I can go get me a job looking presentable. Maybe a tie or something and then maybe I can fill out some applications. 'Cause I'm tired of this here. This ain't getting me nowhere."

A few days before the settlement was reached, police again arrested Davis, charging him once more with obstructing traffic on a bridge. "If the city is determined to get these people," says Weinberg, "there are so many tricks they can use. It's going to be a never-ending battle."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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