Mississippi ACLU asks cities to repeal panhandling penalties


AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

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JACKSON, Miss. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi is asking 16 cities in the state to eliminate local laws that penalize panhandling.

The organization said in a news release Wednesday that the request is part of a national effort that includes work by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

A federal appeals court in 2015 ruled that an ordinance in Springfield, Illinois, that penalized people for begging for money in public places is unconstitutional.

ACLU of Mississippi says that since last year, four cities in the state have repealed panhandling ordinances — Ridgeland, Meridian, Starkville and Southaven.

It is asking the other cities — Brandon, Clarksdale, Cleveland, Clinton, Corinth, Greenville, Greenwood, Grenada, Gulfport, Horn Lake, Jackson, Long Beach, Natchez, Olive Branch, Pascagoula and Vicksburg — to do the same.

“Being homeless and asking for help are not crimes, but anti-panhandling ordinances essentially punish both,” Landon Thames, staff attorney for ACLU of Mississippi, said in the news release. “By working actively with cities to repeal these laws, this campaign helps to protect the rights of the homeless, conserves law enforcement resources, and saves taxpayer dollars.”

The city of Jackson is studying programs in other parts of the country that put panhandlers to work, policy analyst Ashley McLaughlin said last week.

People holding cardboard signs and asking for money are often seen along the Interstate 55 frontage road in north Jackson. WAPT-TV last week interviewed one of the men, 41-year-old Tommy Kozel, who said asking for money is “degrading” and “embarrassing.”

“I mean, it’s the easiest way, but it’s the hardest way because I hate doing it,” Kozel said.

He said he and his dog Max live on the streets of Jackson. Kozel said he was a police officer in his 20s but drug addiction cost him his career.

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