Harassment and the homeless

September 08, 1993

The conflict between the advocates for the rights of Baltimore's homeless and those concerned by some homeless persons' wrongs did not have to end up in a law suit. But of course it did.

Last month a Washington law firm filed suit in federal court here against the city and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore on ** behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit charges that the city's police officers and the partnership's public safety guides threaten and harass homeless persons on downtown streets even when those persons are in no way breaking laws or intimidating other citizens.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence that some officers and guides have been over-zealous in telling the homeless to "move on" from busy public places. Sometimes this effort to move homeless people out of specific areas is related to their panhandling, and sometimes it is just related to their general disreputable appearance. Or so some homeless advocates charge.

An official for the partnership says she is unaware of such acts. If they do occur, it is in violation of policy, she says.

Ugly behavior by the homeless in crowded downtown business areas is a national problem. Like most national problems, it is creating public pressure for preventive action. Also like many national problems, it is being exaggerated. A few panhandlers in every city, including Baltimore, behave threateningly, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Their behavior does not justify laws or official action that prevent the poor from exercising what is still a free speech right in this country: the right to ask for charity.

When a poor street person asks you face to face for some change for a cup of coffee, that is as protected by the First Amendment as is a pastor asking you to tithe or an elected official asking you to give to the United Way or a newspaper asking you to support some other good charity.

What the city, the ACLU, the downtown business establishment, homeless advocates and others concerned about this problem -- including shoppers and workers who are growing angrier and more punitive toward panhandlers and chronic loiterers -- need to focus on is providing an alternative to life on the street for the 2,500 homeless in Baltimore. Maybe the various sides will never agree on what to do, but they ought to go an extra mile before fighting it out in the courts.

Given the national mood, and given some straws in the wind in the language of other federal court decisions in recent years, the courtroom may be even less hospitable to the homeless than the streets of downtown Baltimore.

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