Religion News Service USA Today

As major cities crack down on panhandling, many wrestle with their consciences

In a number of cities, the ordinances are sparking legal battles with civil liberties advocates, who accuse communities of treating the homeless as ‘human blight.’

Third Place, Government Reporting, Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY (RNS) Driving to his downtown clothing business, Hans Herman Thun finds it impossible to ignore the beggars.

They catch his attention with handwritten, cardboard signs such as “Homeless and hungry,” “Anything helps! God bless” and even “I’ll be honest — I could really use a beer.”

Thun, a self-described born-again Christian, works as a tailor for prominent customers such as University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops.

The owner of Hans Herman Custom Tailors said he does his best to help those in need.

“If I’ve got money, and it’s easy for me to get over and give them money, I do,” Thun said. “What the Lord taught me is, I have a responsibility to give. What they choose to do with the money is between them and the Lord, and he can work with them in regards to stewardship.”

But in Oklahoma City and major cities across the nation, elected officials increasingly are passing ordinances that crack down on panhandling.

Typically, these ordinances make it a crime to approach vehicles or stand on medians at busy intersections. Supporters tout the ordinances as safety measures designed to protect the public as well as those seeking food or money.

In a number of cities, however, the ordinances are sparking legal battles with civil liberties advocates, who accuse communities of violating free speech rights and treating the homeless as “human blight.” In one week in May, opponents filed lawsuits challenging anti-panhandling laws in Houston; Pensacola, Fla; and the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy.

In this Bible Belt state capital, the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma are suing over a so-called “median safety ordinance.” The law, which took effect last year, “attempts to criminalize everything from panhandling to political speech and even neighbors talking to one another or walking their dogs in the grass,” said attorney Brady Henderson, the ACLU of Oklahoma’s legal director.

Read the full story.

Among major papers that picked up this story: USA Today, the Houston Chronicle and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Religion News Service is a national wire service whose media partners include The Associated Press, USA Today and the Washington Post.

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