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Lake Worth panhandling ban would be unconstitutional, says ACLU lawyer

Geronimo Bienvenidos understands living homeless in Lake Worth.

He’s almost homeless himself: He chooses to shower and eat at a church, wears the same black shirt and pants every day, works odd jobs and hangs with the homeless in the plaza across from the library.

The city’s proposal to ban panhandling, to Bienvenidos, is Neo-Nazism. To a local civil rights lawyer, it’s unconstitutional.

“Next they’ll say what bench you can’t sit on,” said Bienvenidos, who added he’s never begged for money.

City officials defend the proposal, which passed unanimously Tuesday and is scheduled for a final vote Nov. 4.

The proposal doesn’t violate the Constitution because it bans panhandling by everyone, not just the homeless, Assistant City Attorney Christy Goddeau said.

“If this passes, nobody would be allowed to go into a city-owned garage and panhandle — charitable or otherwise,” Goddeau said.

The proposal would make it illegal to panhandle on city-owned and privately owned property without permission. People wouldn’t be allowed to threaten potential donors or ask for money near ATMs, bus stops, and on buses. But beggars can still hold a sign asking for money, or sing and play music. They just can’t ask for change.

Violators would face a $500 fine or up to 60 days in jail.

But courts have ruled that the Constitution covers the homeless’ right to ask for change, said James Green, an attorney with the West Palm Beach chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I think there’s a vagueness to this ordinance,” Green said.

The proposal makes it illegal to ask for “money or something else of value” after someone has “given a negative response.” It calls this “aggressive panhandling.”

That could mean banning constitutionally protected political speech, Green said.

“If I’m asking people for signatures to support a candidate or vote a certain way, I would think that’s something of value,” Green said. “And what counts as a negative response (to a solicitor)? Is it waving them off? Giving them the finger? Saying ‘no?’ ‘Hell no?’”

The law also would put into city law a rule for private property. It would require anyone soliciting on private property to get the property owner’s permission.

For Green, that’s another strike.

“Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been soliciting on private property for years” without permission — and the law allows it, Green said.

Downtown business owners are pushing for the proposal, which would ban panhandling near outdoor cafes.

Caroline Clore, owner of pet salon Paws On The Avenue downtown, has said panhandling is the biggest issue her business has faced in 15 years.

“Now I think most of the business owners are numb because we’re constantly being told ‘it’s an ACLU thing,’” she said at Tuesday’s commission meeting. “We realize some of these folks need help — might not even realize they need help. But at the end of the day, we have to realize we’re trying to make a nice, attractive downtown for people to come and visit.”

That’s no excuse to Green.

“While I don’t like being solicited, the reality is there are a lot of us who don’t want to see the face of poverty,” he said. “It’s one of the costs of living in a free society — or a society that strives to be free.”

Michael Chase Flack, owner of Chase The Fox Resale on Dixie Highway, is against the rule even though his partner’s mother occassionally feels harassed. “There’s the argument that those people don’t want help,” Flack said Tuesday. “To me, thats a false dichotomy. Who in their right mind would have that life if they want it?

“I think it’s becoming more of a war on the poor rather than a war on poverty,” he said.

Mayor Pam Triolo said deputies offer homeless people rides to shelters.

“What we’ve been told is they refuse transportation to a shelter because you can’t keep keep drinking there and you can’t drug there, and you have to work,” she said.

Bienvenidos agrees that some homeless need help, but others choose to spend their money on drugs instead of bills.

“They’re not all victims,” he said. “If you choose to smoke up your rent, that’s on you. Ironically, if you give some of them $5, they’ll study you to find out how to get more.”

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