Beggars Must Now Be Choosers

City rules: Free shelter or free speech

By Gregory Flannery

Josh Spring addresses a press conference at the federal courthouse. Photo by Gregory Flannery.

Cincinnati City Council has found a way to cut the number of people staying in homeless shelters: Kick out the beggars.

New rules require shelters that receive city funding to enforce “clear and consistent consequences” for clients “known to be panhandling.” Calling the rules a violation of homeless people’s First Amendment rights, the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless filed suit June 16 in federal court to block the city from enforcing the rules.

The fight over the city’s latest attack on panhandling is part of a larger conflict that has been fought behind the scenes until now. The new rules not only prompted a constitutional challenge but also shed light on tensions between the two organizations most responsible for addressing homelessness in Cincinnati: the Homeless Coalition and the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Continuum of Care for the Homeless.

(Disclosure: Streetvibes is published by the Homeless Coalition.)

‘Forced to censor’

The city’s new rules are vague, which is part of the complaint filed by civil-rights attorney Jennifer Kinsley. The “clear and consistent consequences” are not yet defined. But the clear meaning is panhandlers will be evicted from city-funded shelters, according to Josh Spring, executive director of the Homeless Coalition.

Because panhandling is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, the rules must be struck down in court, Spring says.

“This would kick people out from where they sleep at night for doing something that is constitutional,” he says. “We will not stand for this new war on the poor.”

Kinsley’s wants a federal judge to issue preliminary and permanent injunctions to block the new rules. She represents the Homeless Coalition, Grace Place Catholic Worker House and Paul Eggleston Sr., who sometimes stays at the Drop Inn Center and sometimes panhandles.

“Mr. Eggleston suffers from numerous physical and mental disabilities and receives social security assistance each month,” the complaint says. “This income, however, is insufficient to meet his mounting medical bills and also to cover food, clothing and basic necessities. As a result, Mr. Eggleston on occasion engages in non-aggressive solicitation to supplement his subsistence earnings. Mr. Eggleston fears that if (the new rules) take effect, he will be forced to either forfeit his First Amendment right to solicit alms or to live on the streets. Mr. Eggleston intends to continue soliciting alms as necessary to support himself and will therefore be excluded from the Drop Inn Center Shelterhouse and other homeless shelters in Cincinnati as a result.”

The rules “are unconstitutional on their face,” Kinsley’s complaint says. She cites alleged violations such as “impermissible content-based restriction on protected expression,” prior restraint on speech, vague and overbroad restrictions and “improperly burden(ing) the right of free association.”

People such as Eggleston aren’t the only ones forced to make a choice under the new rules. So are organizations like Grace Place, which provides temporary housing to women and children who are in transition from homelessness. The new rules would force Grace Place to choose between respecting people’s rights and providing them shelter, according to Kinsley.

“It will either be forced to censor, silence and punish the free-speech rights of its clients or to risk funding,” the complaint says. “Grace Place does not intend to comply with the anti-panhandling provision and therefore risks losing its certification as a result. In addition, if Grace Place elects not to enact an anti-panhandling policy in response to the city’s motions, it will be forever foreclosed from seeking government funding should it desire to do so in the future.”

Going along

It is telling that Grace Place is the only shelter in the Homeless Coalition that joined the lawsuit as an individual plaintiff. The explanation lies in the fact that Grace Place doesn’t accept city funding – or more, to the point, funding channeled through the Continuum of Care.

City council didn’t pass an ordinance requiring the anti-panhandling policy at shelters. It passed a motion directing that the rule be made part of the city’s minimum standards for shelters. But first it took responsibility for monitoring the standards away from the Homeless Coalition – and gave it to the Continuum of Care.

Kinsley’s lawsuit challenges that move, too.

The Continuum of Care is in charge of managing – and disbursing – city and federal funding for programs serving homeless people. By joining the lawsuit, a shelter would be declaring it doesn’t want the Continuum of Care – the agency with the money – placed in charge of monitoring it.

While some management at other agencies say off the record that they don’t want the changes in minimum standards, none are saying so publicly. Doing so could risk their relationships with the people who decide on funding.

Relationships between the three players – the city, the Continuum of Care and the Homeless Coalition – are at the heart of the conflict. In a May 28 e-mail to various agencies serving homeless people, Kevin Finn, director of the Continuum of Care, said council’s decision to change the system arose from its relationship with the Homeless Coalition.

“I have no insight into or knowledge of the relationship between the city and the Homeless Coalition,” Finn wrote. “I can only guess about the status of this relationship from what I read in the pages of Streetvibes, and I would never purport to speak to the status of that relationship. However, I believe the status of that relationship is a factor in this issue.”

Spring had pleaded with the Continuum of Care to oppose changing the minimum standards – a process created and monitored by the Homeless Coalition for 20 years. In an e-mail to Finn, Spring appealed for his support.

“Kevin, I am not asking you to stand up and yell, ‘Hell no, we won’t allow this change!’ I am simply asking you to stand up and tell the truth to council and our agencies,” Spring wrote. “I am just asking you to say the coalition has done this for 20 years. … There is no need to change this. The coalition should continue to monitor the minimum standards.”

Instead Finn gave a tepid acknowledgment that there was no need for the change. But, he said, the Continuum of Care would go along with it.

“I do not believe that this change must be made,” Finn wrote. “On the other hand, if passing minimum standards is a condition of receiving funding from or through the city, as the above named funds do, then it also makes sense to have the entity which oversees the funding oversee the minimum standards monitoring. Therefore, if the city does decide, after dialogue with the coalition, to end their current shelter monitoring relationship, and then designates the (Continuum of Care) to take over the monitoring of emergency shelter standards, we will.”

Subhead: “He told me’

The city never engaged in a “dialogue with the coalition,” Spring says. Moreover, the Continuum of Care was more than a passive observer in council’s actions, he says. Finn actually wrote the panhandling rules enacted by council, according to Spring.

“I know Kevin wrote the panhandling rules,” Spring says. “He told me he wrote it.”

Finn and a Streetvibes writer exchanged phone messages but didn’t connect in time for an interview.

While the two agencies have sometimes disagreed in the past, they have collaborated until now on items such as minimum standards and the homeless counts required for federal funding. But their differences are now coming to the fore.

Publicly distributed e-mails between Finn and Spring contain increasingly sharp remarks on a variety of topics. Spring cautioned against “the Continuum of Care or any other organization creating pressure based on misinformation.” Within an hour Finn replied, “For the record, I would encourage the Homeless Coalition, or any other entity, to seek clarification on such issues before trashing anyone publicly – not after.” Three days later Finn warned against escalation: “It is important for those of us who are fighting to assist homeless people not to get distracted and off target and begin wasting our energy fighting each other.”

It might be too late. The Homeless Coalition is a membership organization. One of the chief benefits of membership is participating in the minimum-standards process. Taking that role away from the Homeless Coalition is an economic threat to the coalition’s existence, according to Kinsley’s complaint.

“If (the council motions) take effect, the coalition will no longer be vested with the responsibility of providing the minimum-standards certification program, and as a result will likely lose members and funding,” the complaint says.