Homeless Banned from Selling Newspapers on Major Roads?

A shelter system in Florida is imperiled by a ban on homeless residents selling newspapers on busy streets.


Jordana, 31, is expecting a baby in February and she's excited that she'll have her own place by then. Until recently, she lived in a shelter run by Homeless Voice, one of nine operating in Broward County, Florida. 

She credits her success story in part to the work she did for the shelter: handing out newspapers published by the group to motorists for donations, a source of cash for the shelters and their residents. 

"I liked it, I had fun doing it,” she tells AlterNet. “A lot of good people gave me advice on what to do. You learn how to communicate better." A promotion to a desk job at one of the shelters allowed her to save enough to get her own place. 

But last October, a U.S. District Judge upheld a city ordinance banning solicitation on major roads. The ban means shelter residents can no longer hand out Homeless Voice newspapers to drivers on the city's busiest streets. If they do, they risk getting a citation or a $500 dollar fine. The ruling means a loss of funds for the shelters that could force them to shut down rooms and beds and cut emergency intake, says founder Sean Cononie.  

The city argued the rule is meant to protect both the organization’s street vendors and motorists. But Cononie points out that in 17 years they have yet to lose a street vendor, and that the city's concern for the well-being and safety of the homeless does not extend to helping the group compensate for their loss of revenue. 

Instead, he sees the ordinance as an effort to hide visible poverty from the nicer parts of town. "It's because they don't like homeless or poor people to be on the street," he says. "They did it on the streets that were main streets in nice areas." 

The Sun Sentinel reports that other Florida cities like Coral Springs, Miramar and Cooper City have similar bans, and that Fort Lauderdale officials have been emboldened by the ruling to pursue similar policies. 

For years advocates for the homeless have fought laws that appear to unfairly target homeless people. Cities around the country have passed bans on sitting or lying down on the sidewalk, sleeping or camping in the park, asking for change, even eating in public. These laws arm police with the legal tools to threaten the homeless with a citation, fine or arrest. 

American jurisprudence does not (at least officially) encourage a different set of laws for the poor, so these ordinances apply to everyone in theory. But advocates for the homeless point out they intentionally restrict activities associated with the homelessness, like sleeping or eating in public, and that they're selectively enforced anyway. The law might officially forbid the anyone to sleep in a park, but police are not likely to pick on a guy in a suit taking a nap. 

It all adds up to the criminalization of poverty, say homeless advocates, and it effectively diverts money that could go to shelters and other services into the criminal justice system. Ultimately, these policies just make it harder for people to get off the street. A criminal record disqualifies needy people from the public assistance that could help move them into permanent housing. 

Although selling newspapers may not constitute a "life-sustaining" activity like sleeping or eating in public, Cononie points out that the ban imperils the shelter's ability to help the people who need it most, and will force the organization to scale back services. 

The really galling part, he says, is that the city relies on the private shelter to help manage its homeless population. According to an official count, in 2013 there were 2,810 homeless families and individuals in Broward county, 829 unsheltered (note: many homelessness advocates argue that point-in-time counts, which take a snapshot of visible homeless over the course of just one day, severely underestimate the problem). The Broward Palm Beach New Times reports that Homeless Voice regularly takes in people turned away from other shelters.

Cononie says that police often drop people off at Homeless Voice shelters; the group even got a mention on the reality TV show “Police Women of Broward County” when an officer gives a middle-aged homeless woman information on how to get to one of their shelters. 

"It's going to hurt Broward County dramatically," Cononie says. "We're not going to go out of business but we're not going to have the same amount. Now we're struggling.”

Tana Ganeva is a reporter covering criminal justice, drug policy and homelessness. Follow her on Twitter @TanaGaneva.

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