Rain or shine, some people experiencing homelessness are standing at intersections with signs asking for money, work or food. Some signs even joke that the wife had a better lawyer. All of them are hoping for a hand-out from drivers, though.
The Eugene City Council made its first step to pass an ordinance that would prohibit the transfer of goods from a vehicle to pedestrians. However, ACLU of Oregon says it’s ready to challenge the city if the ordinance passes and results in citations.
During a Jan. 14 City Council work session, City Councilor Mike Clark proposed moving forward with a panhandling ordinance that mirrors Springfield’s.
Clark moved to direct City Manager Jon Ruiz to design the ordinance’s language. The next step will be a public forum.
During the work session, Clark said the proposal was in response to an “overwhelming” amount of citizen input asking for the ordinance. He said he brought it up as a safety concern, among other reasons.
The council approved Clark’s proposal, with Claire Syrett and Alan Zelenka opposing.
Heather Sielicki, an advocate for the homeless, wrote a letter to the City Council and shared it with Eugene Weekly.
“It stigmatizes and dehumanizes people asking for help and encourages discriminatory views,” she wrote. “Implementing ordinances to impose restrictions on sidewalk and roadside solicitation is a waste of law enforcement energy and tax payer dollars. We have real public safety needs in this community, and responding to panhandlers is not one of them.”
The ACLU of Oregon wonders whether the City Council is using its powers wisely.
“I think the question the people need to ask is, what are their city councilors doing?” says Mat dos Santos, legal director for ACLU of Oregon. “Are they trying to resolve this problem of the housing crisis? Or are they passing empty laws that will get challenged in court and cost millions of dollars?”
Eugene’s proposal isn’t the first time the ACLU of Oregon has seen an ordinance that prohibits panhandling.
Sixty-one other cities in Oregon have ordinances that prohibit the transfer of goods from vehicles to people on the street. One of these cities is Springfield.
“What a travesty that you’d pass a law to prevent a Good Samaritan who is helping someone in need,” dos Santos says.
Springfield passed the ordinance in 2016. It allows police to cite violators up to $50 for transferring money, food or property to a pedestrian.
Clark commended the ordinance in Springfield for improving safety.
Yet, the Springfield Police Department hasn’t issued any citations since the ordinance passed, says Amber Fossen, the city’s public affairs coordinator.
“Springfield Police has historically approached violations of the ordinance as an educational opportunity,” Fossen said in an email to EW.
One of the effects of prohibiting the transfer of goods to pedestrians would affect Eugene-Springfield Fire Department’s “Fill the Boot” campaigns, which usually raise money for muscular dystrophy.
If the ordinance allows the fire department’s campaign to continue, though, it would be unequally applied, thus a discriminatory application.
Dos Santos says the ACLU is open to challenging the ordinance if it gets enforced.
If the council approves the ordinance, dos Santos urges people to go out and hand out money to people experiencing homelessness in front of police.
“I hope people will do it, because it will have real political backlash,” he says.