Homeless couple (via ACLU)

The ACLU of Delaware, National Homelessness Law Center and other advocates are encouraging the state legislature to consider repealing laws that criminalize panhandling, instead of passing House Bill 58, which keeps penalties in place but uses the legal process to connect homeless people facing panhandling charges with social services.

The ACLU of Delaware (ACLU-DE), National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC), and other community advocates sent a letter to members of the House Judiciary Committee this, asking them to consider repeal of laws that criminalize panhandling, rather than passing House Bill 58, which would keep penalties for panhandling in place.

In response to the letter, some sponsors of HB 58 have pledged to explore legislation that would repeal the unconstitutional statutes, ACLU representatives noted.

HB 58 proposes to amend Section 4147, Title 21, Chapter 41 of the Delaware Code to move cases involving panhandling violations to the Court of Common Pleas. Sponsors of the bill advocate that the move would make more social services available to homeless people facing panhandling charges.

The letter sent from ACLU-DE, NHLC and community advocates argues that the laws the bill aims to change are unconstitutional, and repealing them is what would best serve Delaware’s homeless population.

“Connecting people who are poor or homeless with social services is a commendable goal, but the criminal justice system is not an efficient or fair way to address the root causes of homelessness,” said Javonne Rich, policy advocate at the ACLU of Delaware. “No one should be thrown in jail or subjected to a fine for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change. People have a constitutional right to ask for help, and the laws in question are a direct violation of that right.”

In the letter, advocates appeal to members of the House Judiciary Committee to protect Delaware’s homeless population by rejecting HB 58, putting an immediate moratorium on enforcement and then championing a rapid repeal of the law, and developing approaches that they said will lead to the best outcomes for all Delawareans — housed and unhoused alike.

Cosigners on the letter include the Campaign for Smart Justice, Congregation Beth Emeth, DE Campaign to End Debtors’ Prisons, Delaware Center for Justice, Delaware Civil Rights Coalition, Delaware Community Legal Aid Society Inc., HOMES Campaign, HerStory Ensemble LLC, Housing Alliance Delaware, Latino Initiative on Restorative Justice Inc., National Homelessness Law Center, Network Delaware, Nonprofit Housing Agenda, Project New Start Inc., Safe Communities, the Delaware Poor People’s Campaign, the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice, the Springboard Collaborative Inc., Unitarian Universalist Delaware Advocacy Network and Votamos We Vote Coalition.

House Rep. Paul Baumbach, co-sponsor of HB 58, offered his thoughts on the proposal from community advocates: “I am pleased with the new focus on panhandling, not as a problem, but instead as a symptom, a symptom of hopelessness, and often homelessness. Neither should be a crime.

“I support HB 58 for its modest improvement to the handling of those charged with panhandling, to better meet their needs. But, critically, HB 58 forces us to look at the bigger picture, and whether panhandling should be a crime in Delaware, and whether it is even constitutional for it to be a crime. Rep. Morrison and I look forward to partnering with the ACLU on this exploration of the future, or the end, of treating panhandling in Delaware as a crime.”

The full letter can be found online at https://www.aclu-de.org/en/news/press-release-aclu-delaware-calls-repeal-panhandling-statute.