Homeless advocates have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Sacramento, alleging that a panhandling ordinance adopted in November violates the free speech rights of citizens asking for handouts.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court late Tuesday on behalf of well-known homeless activist James Lee “Faygo” Clark, seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions against enforcing the ordinance, which bans soliciting within 30 feet of ATMs or banks, at driveway entrances to businesses or near bus stops.
The suit was filed on behalf of Clark and the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Legal Services of Northern California.
The 12-page complaint calls the ordinance a clear violation of the First Amendment right to free speech and one that “is taking away one of the few legal and safe means for homeless individuals to obtain money for necessities.”
“The ordinance effectively bans a wide range of protected speech in large swaths of the city,” the suit says. “In addition, although it is styled as an ‘aggressive and intrusive solicitation’ ordinance, the law criminalizes purely passive activity such as sitting peacefully on the sidewalk with a sign or a donation cup.”
City officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit comes as the city and other regional governments find themselves casting about for solutions to the homeless crisis they face.
At Sacramento City Hall, homeless people sleep nightly under the eaves of the building and have been the subject of efforts by city officials to extend services and housing to them, including a $108 million partnership with the county that has been led by Mayor Darrell Steinberg.
But efforts to deal with the region’s homeless population have included ordinances aimed at limiting where homeless people may panhandle or live.
Measures in Sutter County and Yuba City that prohibited camping in public spots such as in cars or along the Feather River prompted a civil rights suit filed in Sacramento federal court in March and resulted in a preliminary injunction last week that prohibits enforcement of the ordinance or seizure of homeless citizens’ property.
The Sacramento ordinance was adopted unanimously by the council following complaints from business and tourism groups about aggressive panhandling, and it has been controversial from the start. The night of its adoption on Nov. 14, 2017, four people were removed from the council chambers for raising their voices during the debate.
Under the ordinance, first-time offenders can be cited for an infraction and fined, and individuals who violate it more than twice can face up to six months in jail and a fine of $500 to $1,000.
The lawsuit describes Clark as a homeless man who routinely solicits handouts of food or money in Sacramento, sometimes along 21st Street, where he sits with his dog and two signs asking for money, with a cup for donations set between them.
He also stands on the sidewalk at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op at 28th and R streets, seeking donations of healthy food or cash, the suit says.
“Mr. Clark selects his locations based on his experience of where he is most successful obtaining donations,” the suit says, noting that his chosen spot near the co-op puts him within 30 feet of a Regional Transit bus stop and the co-op’s driveways, both violations of the ordinance.