A Rhode Island state legislator who says she is worried about safety on the roads is again trying to limit how panhandlers can receive money from strangers.
Deputy House Speaker Charlene Lima filed a bill that would fine drivers and passengers who pass anything out of their car window while in an active travel lane. Lima said this is the third attempt to pass such a bill.
“In order to give you would just have to pull over and then you could give,” she said, “so it doesn’t prevent you from giving.”
Lima’s bill would impose a fine of up to $100 for the first offense and more money thereafter. It would also allow cities and towns to issue solicitation permits to certain groups or people.
Four other legislators, Stephen Ucci, Camille Velia-Wilkinson, Deborah Fellela and Christopher Millea, all Democrats, are backing the measure.
Language in the bill addresses panhandling and says, “It is not the general assembly’s role to prohibit anyone’s right to ‘panhandle’ but rather to provide a safe environment for the ‘panhandler’ and the motoring public.”
Lima said the bill is “not anti-panhandling” or “a money-grab” but suggests it is for the safety of drivers and panhandlers.
“The major thing is safety,” she said, “and what I’m thinking of doing is having a portion of the money from the fine go to legitimate homeless programs so those truly in need would get some money.”
But Eric Hirsch, co-chair of the Housing and Homelessness Policy Group for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, said if the bill were to pass it would likely face a legal challenge.
Hirsch is a sociology professor at Providence College and is a member of the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
“I don’t think it has a chance of withstanding scrutiny. I think she knows that it isn’t about traffic safety, that it will be much, much more difficult for panhandlers to operate and that’s what’s motivating this bill,” he said. “If you’re panhandling, you’re asking people for money in their cars, you’re going to get almost nothing if people are required to pull over and potentially park their car before they’re going to give you money.”
Hirsch said language in the bill further convinces him that panhandlers are directly being targeted.
“The fact that the bill language itself says that it is not meant to prohibit panhandling just shows me that that’s what it’s about,” he said. “And I think that’s shown by the fact that there’s this part of it that allows for exemptions, so if it’s in fact about traffic safety, why are there exemptions? …Who’s likely to be granted that exemption and who is not?”
Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said on its face the bill seems like another aspect of criminalizing homelessness.
“Just like the anti-food-sharing ordinances that have popped up across the country – punish[ing] people for trying to share food with people experiencing homelessness – this is targeting people,” Tars said. “That would be a further barrier to them getting out of homelessness, but nonetheless it’s designed to make giving to people experiencing homelessness most difficult.
“The best way to get homeless people out of poverty and off the streets is to just give them funds to be able to get themselves off the street.”
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, has already vowed to challenge the measure as unconstitutional if passed. He says it would infringe on First Amendment rights even if panhandlers aren’t the ones being fined.
“It bars a significant way that many panhandlers obtain donations: by standing on roadway medians,” Brown said. “The fact that there may be other ways to ask for money doesn’t change the fact that it attempts to prohibit one particular and meaningful way of doing that.”
Brown is planning to testify against the bill on Wednesday, February 27 at the Rhode Island statehouse when it is up for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.