City Hall

Civil Rights Group Asks Court to Halt Dallas' Ordinance Banning Panhandlers From Medians

The Dallas City Council approved the ordinance in a 14-1 vote in late October.
The Dallas City Council approved the ordinance in a 14-1 vote in late October. Getty Images
The Texas Civil Rights Project is trying to block enforcement of a new ordinance in Dallas that makes it illegal to sit or stand on street medians less than 6 feet wide. Dallas was sued by the Texas Civil Rights Project, an Austin-based nonprofit organization that advocates for voter rights, racial and economic justice, and criminal justice reform, shortly after the ordinance was passed in October.

The suit was filed alongside Waters Kraus & Paul LLC and the SMU First Amendment Law Clinic, on behalf of two advocates and two homeless individuals. The ordinance makes standing or sitting on medians narrower than 6 feet a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.

It’s been billed as a public safety measure to protect pedestrians (including panhandlers) from getting hit by cars. But to the Texas Civil Rights Project and the plaintiffs in the suit, the ordinance is a violation of the First Amendment. This is because courts have ruled that asking for help, like asking for money, is protected speech. And panhandlers often ask for help while standing on city medians, some of which may be narrower than 6 feet. On Monday, the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a motion in court to block enforcement of the ordinance until there’s a ruling on the lawsuit. The city of Dallas won't comment on the suit.

Travis Fife, a fellow with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the ordinance is unconstitutional and will make it harder for the homeless to get help. The threat of fines can create distrust between the homeless and the people trying to help them, Fife said.

“Accepting help from someone else is a process that requires trust. It’s a process that requires time,” Fife said. “When they can’t have that trust to know if a person is going to criminally sanction them or offer services, I think it just undermines any progress that can be made by any of the city’s other initiatives.”

"I think it just undermines any progress that can be made by any of the city’s other initiatives.” – Travis Fife, Texas Civil Rights Project

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Fife said the city will try to say what it has argued all along, that this ordinance isn’t about panhandlers. It’s about public safety, according to the city. But, Fife said the city’s own work on the ordinance centering on panhandling disputes this. Additionally, he said the public safety concern about pedestrians on medians getting hit by cars is unfounded and is just an excuse used to help the ordinance stand up to legal scrutiny.

“I think it’s also important to take a little bit of a historical view that time and time again the city of Dallas and other governments have used these vague and ambiguous safety concerns to restrict the rights of the most vulnerable,” Fife said. He referenced a Dallas ordinance from the 2000s that banned people from giving food to the homeless. The city said at the time that giving food to the homeless was a public safety concern.

According to a report by NBC at the time, Boadicea White, then Dallas’ interim manager for homeless services, said the ordinance was meant to combat litter and food-borne illness and drive the homeless to places that offered a variety of services instead of just food. The city was eventually sued in federal court over the ban by Big Heart Ministries and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry. In 2013, a court ruled the ordinance was a violation of the groups’ religious freedom. The city settled the suit and had to revise the ordinance and pay the groups’ legal fees.

Plaintiffs in the panhandling suit include homelessness advocates Hannah Lebovits, a University of Texas at Arlington professor, and Kawana Scott, community organizer and chair of the Dallas Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, as well as two homeless veterans named Alton Waggoner and Teri Heishman. Waggoner, 68, and Heishman, 67, both rely on panhandling to pay for basic necessities. Waggoner has been fined $450 for panhandling before, an amount he still can’t afford to pay, according to the lawsuit. He’s been homeless for about two years. Heishman has a home subsidized by the Veteran Administration in Dallas, but says she still has to panhandle to make ends meet.

Fife said he’s not sure how long this fight against the city and its no-standing-on-medians ordinance will take. That’s why it’s important to him that the court blocks enforcement of the ordinance until it reaches a decision.

“The ball is in the city’s court. We are going to fight this for as long as it takes to get a judgment on the merits or for the city to voluntarily agree to rescinding the ordinance,” Fife said. “If I was a taxpayer or an accountant for the city, I would be telling them ‘Settle, settle, settle. Get rid of this,' because it’s just going to be more and more money on litigation fees and expenses when the city council could do the moral and correct thing of getting rid of this policy.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn

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