BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - The American Civil Liberties Union called out 16 Mississippi cities, asking them to lift strict rules against panhandling.
The cities named include Jackson, Gulfport, Greenville, Olive Branch, Horn Lake, Clinton, Vicksburg, Pascagoula, Brandon, Clarksdale, Natchez, Greenwood, Long Beach, Corinth, Grenada, and Cleveland.
“How y’all folks doing?" said one panhandler named Leon. He shouted to a group of people passing him by,"Y’all wouldn’t be able to spare any change right now, would you? Hungry man right here. Thirsty.”
He is homeless and said while it is not a proud job, panhandling is the only way he’s able to survive day by day.
“People judge you, people look at you funny. Go get you a job... okay, you got a job? You hiring? No. That’s always the answer," he said.
For the second year, ACLU of Mississippi is launching its campaign"Housing Not Handcuffs." The initiative is in partnership with the National Law Center of Homelessness & Poverty.
“While we did have some success last year, obviously not every city repealed and we still think this is an important issue," said staff attorney Landon Thames.
Part of the ACLU’s is mission to break the cycle of incarceration. The group says tough laws lead to too many arrests and jail time for an already struggling population.
“It’s not a career choice or nothing like that, but I got to eat today, right? I got to figure out how to get some cold water," said Leon.
The City of Biloxi could soon revise its own rules. This week, Biloxi city council had its first meeting to consider removing the requirement of a license to panhandle.
“If there’s a legal way to not go to jail for asking people for some money, I’ll do that," said Leon, who owns a panhandling license. He says says the permit requirement gives him boundaries he’s happy to work with.
”With a panhandling license, you can’t stand right there," he said as he pointed around. “You can’t stand at the bus stop, you have to be within 12 feet of a car. So you’ve got your rules.”
Those concerned with panhandling say its bad for business but the ACLU noted that it is backed by Supreme Court rules that deem such limits unconstitutional.
“They deserve to have their rights protected just like everyone else and part of their rights is the freedom of speech, which means they have the right to ask for help without being arrested for it,” said Thames.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, five in every 10,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Mississippi.