DES MOINES, Iowa — A civil liberties organization and an advocacy group for the homeless said Tuesday they are taking on Iowa city ordinances that restrict the ability of homeless people to ask for money in public areas, saying the local laws are unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa sent formal demand letters Tuesday to three cities in Iowa — Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and Grimes — insisting that they repeal their bans on panhandling.
Those cities represent an initial review of ordinances in some of Iowa's largest cities, said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director. There are others that have unconstitutional ordinances, which were not targeted with a letter, she said. She's advising all cities to ensure that they don't have bans or permit requirements on panhandling or solicitation.
"That's not just wrong in the moral sense, it is also unconstitutional, because the First Amendment protects the right of people to express their needs and ask for help as free speech," she said.
The ACLU effort is in coordination with 18 organizations in 12 states targeting more than 240 similar ordinances they consider unconstitutional.
Thousands of cities across the country have restrictions on asking for money in public spaces, the ACLU said.
A 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Arizona case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, struck down a city's ordinances aimed at regulating signs directing people to a church meeting. The court in its decision set a new standard for what is considered protected speech and since then panhandling has been interpreted as similar constitutionally protected speech. As a result, every case since brought against panhandling ordinances — more than 25 to date — has been found unconstitutional, the ACLU of Iowa said. Also, since that landmark decision, at least an additional 31 cities have repealed their ordinances.
"Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. "Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities."
A Des Moines ordinance, for example, makes it a misdemeanor to solicit funds without a license or between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. It's punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $750 for a first offense.
Grimes City Administrator Jake Anderson said the city's attorney is reviewing the ACLU letter.
"To my knowledge, we have not recently taken an enforcement action under this ordinance nor have we in the past," he said. "We appreciate the ACLU bringing constitutional issues to our attention."
Representatives from Des Moines, Council Bluffs and the National League of Cities did not immediately respond to messages.
The push to stop the ordinances is part of the Housing Not Handcuffs campaign started in 2016 by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and more than 100 other organizations to emphasize that criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing the issue.