Flying Under the Radar: A tactic in the fight against homeless criminalization

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”  – Frederick Douglass

“You can’t count on the worst always happening/You need a busload of faith to get by” – Lou Reed

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An amazing non-event happened last week which we can file under both ‘no news is good news’ and ‘flying under the radar.’ Here’s what didn’t happen.

This past Wednesday we got word from Barry Butin, who co-chairs the Broward ACLU‘s legal panel, that an ordinance banning panhandling throughout the city of Coconut Creek would be introduced the following night at its City Commission meeting. In itself, this is hardly surprising.

All across the state – all across the country, for that matter – and especially in recent decades, cities have been passing laws which criminalize the life-sustaining behaviors and activities of people who are homeless like rabbits reproducing. While these laws serve no purpose in curtailing homelessness, the stubborn mythology that they’ll somehow compel homeless folk to move on, either physically or with their lives, persists. Meanwhile, only two forms of intervention have seemed to make a dent in this regime of hating on the homeless: lawsuits and, more recently, a shifting policy tide in the federal government. Now here’s another (though, based on our experience, we don’t expect this to become widely applicable).

Upon getting this news from our ACLU friend, Mr. Butin, we immediately found and read the proposed ordinance, then began contacting Coconut Creek officials, several of whom we spoke with. Thankfully, one of them was City Attorney Terrill Pyburn.

We explained to Ms. Pyburn how the federal government, via HUD, was now even tying funding for homeless services to local governments’ not passing laws which criminalize homelessness. We mentioned that Broward County’s Continuum of Care Board, the homeless advisory board to the County Commission, was in a process of drafting a letter to advise cities against passing such laws. (No kudos here to the CoC Board, which has been dragging its feet on drafting and sending this letter for over a year. Indeed, Coconut Creek may not even have considered its ordinance if the CoC had acted in a more timely manner.)

Finally, we shared with Ms. Pyburn a recent ruling in a federal lawsuit brought by Homeless Helping Homeless (Tampa) against the City of Tampa, which saw a panhandling ban there overturned. While she told me that she’d been looking at other case law on panhandling in drafting Coconut Creek’s pending ordinance, she was unfamiliar with this case. Next comes the amazing part.

The ordinance was pulled from Thursday night’s agenda pending significant revisions – this happened over the course of two phone conversations between her and I – which would guarantee the measure would be compliant with the HHH v. Tampa ruling, and would also eliminate language applying to “aggressive panhandling.” I’d also explained to her that that language was redundant relative to existing laws, e.g., Florida statues, which already prohibit the same aggressive behavior in any context.

By comparison with how the city of Fort Lauderdale has reacted with haughty indifference to even mass public outcries against its laws banning panhandling, camping, publicly storing one’s belongings, food sharing and more, City Attorney Pyburn’s open-mindedness was a breath of fresh air.

Now we’ll be watching to see if this fresh air isn’t also of the ‘hot’ variety. (Our experience dictates that we don’t blow the victory trumpets just yet!)  Ms. Pyburn has promised to forward us the amended ordinance as soon as it’s ready, and in advance of the commission’s September 22 meeting, which is when its first reading is now planned.

The strategy in pushing political demands is to start down the road of least resistance. You might get a win by doing that. Just don’t count on it, and always be ready for the next move. We’ll wait and see if we’ll yet have to make one here.

 

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About October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness

I've been an organizer and freelance writer exposing the systemic roots of social inequality, especially the brutality inflicted on persons experiencing homelessness by means of laws criminalizing their existence, for about seven years. While seeking change at the local, state and national levels via progressive legislation, legal remedies and creative resistance, I believe that only through a radical reorganization of society, brought about by unified struggle with the powers that be, will we be able to guarantee every citizen the humane existence which we all deserve. I work locally in Broward County, FL, as founder of The October 22nd Alliance; across Florida with Florida Homeless Action Coalition (FL-HAC) which I also co-founded; and am allied nationally with National Coalition for the Homeless and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. I support all struggle for the full liberation and equality of historically dominated people, from Blacks and Native Americans in the US, to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, to women and LGBTQ people the world over, and wherever the crushing machinery of capitalism and imperialism produces its endless supply of human misery.
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