Miami Beach

Miami Beach law limits panhandling. Civil rights groups say that violates free speech.

Miami Beach police officers talk with a homeless woman in Lummus Park in South Beach in June 2013.
Miami Beach police officers talk with a homeless woman in Lummus Park in South Beach in June 2013.

Under the First Amendment, homeless people have the right to peacefully ask strangers for money, food or other assistance — even if that request makes residents and tourists uncomfortable.

That’s according to a coalition of civil rights and legal advocacy groups who are demanding that Miami Beach and other Florida cities repeal panhandling restrictions.

The groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Southern Legal Counsel, and the Florida Public Defender Association, argue that panhandling restrictions like the ones in Miami Beach violate the right to free speech. Rather than providing a solution to homelessness, they argue, punishing homeless people for asking for money can exacerbate the problem.

“I think panhandling ordinances are often these politically expedient policy tools to say to constituents and tourists and business owners that they’re doing something about the issue of homelessness,” said Kirsten Anderson, the director of litigation at Southern Legal Counsel. “It’s not actually helping homelessness. It’s making the problem worse by contributing to the cycle of incarceration and fees and fines and making it more difficult for people to get the help that they need.”

In Miami Beach, city law prohibits panhandling in specific locations including within 20 feet of a bank, ATM or parking payment machine. The coalition sent the city a letter last week warning that the ordinance “almost certainly violates the constitutional right to free speech” and cautioned that following a 2015 Supreme Court decision heightening protections for free speech, every panhandling ordinance challenged in federal court has been declared unconstitutional.

It’s unclear how Miami Beach plans to respond.

The chief deputy city attorney, Aleksandr Boksner, said in an e-mail that the city’s panhandling ordinance applies “only within very limited locations” and was established “solely for the safety and well-being of the City’s residents and visitors.” He argued that the ACLU and other groups “neglected to recognize” the narrow scope of the ordinance.

A change to Miami Beach’s restrictions could be in the works, however. The city attorney’s office is currently reviewing the ordinance, Boksner said, and a potential amendment “may be forthcoming.” It’s ultimately up to the City Commission to decide whether to repeal or amend an ordinance.

In the meantime, Miami Beach has stopped arresting homeless people for panhandling. Mayor Dan Gelber said the city hasn’t enforced the ordinance since February because city attorneys are evaluating its constitutionality.

“If they’re not enforcing it, I’m not sure there’s a reason to repeal it,” he said. “We’ll consider it, but it’s obviously not being enforced.”

Simply stopping enforcement may not be enough to keep Miami Beach’s ordinance out of court, however. Anderson said that while it was “encouraging to hear” that the city had stopped enforcement, “there is nothing legally to prevent the City from resuming enforcement unless the ordinance is repealed.”

The coalition sent similar letters challenging panhandling restrictions to the cities of Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Lake Worth, Ocala and St. Petersburg as well as to Alachua and Polk counties. The letters are part of a national campaign coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which sent out more than 200 letters to local governments across the country.

In South Florida, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood prohibit panhandling in certain locations, including within 15 feet of a sidewalk café or a commercial or governmental building. Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Alain Boileau said his office was evaluating the letter, but declined to comment further. Hollywood City Attorney Douglas Gonzales said he would be unable to respond to questions until later in the week.

The coalition asked the cities to respond to the letters by Oct. 1. Otherwise, it’s possible they’ll wind up in court.

“Certainly litigation is an option, but it’s something that we hope would be unnecessary in a situation like this where it’s so clear that these ordinances are unconstitutional,” said Anderson of Southern Legal Counsel.

In Miami Beach, the panhandling ordinance is part of a broader debate over how the city addresses homelessness.

Last year, Miami Beach drew criticism from the ACLU for considering an ordinance that would have created a “no panhandling zone” on Lincoln Road and the surrounding area. The ACLU sent the City Commission a letter warning that the proposed restrictions would infringe on free speech rights. The ordinance was never adopted.

Homeless people in Miami Beach say they are frequently arrested for trespassing and other misdemeanors, which can result in hundreds of dollars in fines and court fees. Last year, when the panhandling ordinance was still being enforced, police charged 57 people with panhandling, according to Police Chief Daniel Oates. There were nearly 2,000 arrests involving homeless people in 2017, including more than 400 for trespassing, according to city data. Although the size of the island’s homeless population fluctuates throughout the year, more than 1,500 people in Miami Beach reported being homeless at some point during the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The city also provides assistance to its homeless population, however, which includes transportation across the bay to shelters — there are none in Miami Beach — as well as job training and support group services.

“We try very hard to deal with homeless issues with a good measure of humanity but often the homeless include people who are mentally ill and who are dangerous to both residents and visitors and that can’t be ignored especially in a city that has this many visitors,” Gelber said. “We commit lots of resources to addressing all sides of the homeless issue.”

Valerie Navarrete, a Miami Beach activist who serves on the city’s Committee on the Homeless, said she believes the panhandling ordinance should be repealed. “The only way to solve homelessness is by permanent housing,” she said. “We can’t arrest them because they’re asking for money for food.”