ACLU asks Montpelier, other towns to repeal anti-panhandling laws

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Six Vermont cities and towns have local laws prohibiting panhandling, but the ACLU of Vermont says those local laws are unconstitutional and must be repealed, saying the local laws violate free speech rights.

Twenty-one-year-old Ely is from Oregon and made her way across the country to Vermont. On Wednesday, she sat on State Street in Montpelier asking for money. She says on a good day she can make as much as $100.

"Because my situation here isn't permanent, I don't have enough time to get a job or find permanent housing, so this is a quick, easy way for me to make some cash," Ely said. "It may look like I'm just sitting here and being lazy but I make quite a bit of good cash."

Ely was in violation of Montpelier's ban on panhandling, but nobody bothered her about it. In other communities like Burlington, Brattleboro and Bennington, authorities have responded more aggressively based on complaints from residents and businesses who say panhandlers are unsightly or drive away customers.

The Vermont ACLU says that ban is unconstitutional.

"These ordinances specifically ban speech and that's just something that the First Amendment does not tolerate," said Jay Diaz of the ACLU.

Montpelier City Manager William Fraser agrees with the ACLU. He says the Montpelier City Council will take it up next week and start the repeal process.

"We have really not actively pursued this for some time. Supreme Court cases have been clear, best practice is clear, so I think we're in full support of the suggestions of the ACLU," he said.

Diaz says Vermont can do better.

"I wouldn't say we're as aggressive as some other cities around the country, but there have been towns and cities in Vermont that have increased enforcement or have enforced this more strongly," he said.

Jennifer Myka is one of the people who offered cash to Ely. The East Montpelier resident says she frequently gives to people seeking charity on the street and supports repealing the bans.

"I think if people need money they should have the right to ask for it," she said.

Ely, who prefers we not use her last name, says a steady job and income is not for her. She calls herself a "happy street gypsy."

She last had a job in high school at a state fair seven years ago. She has a response for those who tell her to get a job.

"I usually think, 'I would, but then again, I'm probably making more than you are out here,'" she said.

The ACLU says it's in no hurry to take any Vermont city or town to court, but it does want to see them begin the process of repealing the bans.