The Monongalia County Commission — (from left) Jeff Arnett, Tom Bloom and Sean Sikora — passed an ordinance on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, that critics say targets panhandlers. (Monongalia County Commission livestream screenhot)
A West Virginia county passed an ordinance Wednesday critics say unconstitutionally targets people experiencing homelessness asking for money.
The Monongalia County Commission unanimously approved what it calls the “Monongalia County Pedestrian and Vehicle Safety Ordinance.”
The ordinance limits interaction and exchanges between vehicle occupants and people standing on roadways and prohibits standing or sitting on medians, shoulders and other parts of roadways in certain situations, including when the speed limit exceeds 35 miles per hour, at night and during inclement weather when visibility is low.Monongalia Co Pedestrian and Vehicle Safety Ordinance v.3 9.6.23
While the ordinance refers to “vehicle safety,” Commissioner Tom Bloom in the spring introduced it as a way of targeting panhandling. Officials have said it replaces a previous ordinance regulating soliciting and panhandling the commission adopted in 2010.
In an interview earlier this week with West Virginia Watch, Bloom said the ordinance came about after officials received a number of calls from people being confronted by people at stoplights. The commission then met with representatives from other cities to discuss what could be done about “a number of issues” including panhandling, he said.
“It took us about six months to come up with an ordinance that basically we can’t regulate panhandling, we can regulate traffic control, and that’s what we’re doing,” Bloom said. “So it’s a safety and pedestrian vehicle ordinance.”
Bloom said the ordinance addresses a safety issue with people in the median.
“That’s it really, it’s basically a safety issue and obstruction of view, a safety hazard, and it keeps a free flow of traffic moving,” he said.
The ACLU of West Virginia and legal advocacy organization Mountain State Justice both oppose the ordinance. In a joint statement Wednesday, the organizations condemned the ordinance’s passage and said it “clearly runs afoul of the First Amendment” and that its language is meant “to obscure the Commission’s intent: to ban panhandling, for solicitors and drivers alike, on county roadways.”
“You can slap a horn on a pony and call it a unicorn, but a unicorn this does not make,” the statement reads, in part. “The Commission’s ordinance is equally fantastical, premised on the idea that sweeping bans on speech make a community safer or more inclusive. We tried to tell them; now we’ll see them in court.”
ACLU interim director Eli Baumwell told West Virginia Watch earlier this week the organization sees the ordinance as an “unnecessary and dangerous attack on unhoused people and people who struggle with poverty.”
Baumwell said the ACLU is more concerned that the commission is targeting unhoused people than with whether the law is unconstitutional.
“They’ve been explicit, this is attempting to stop panhandling,” Baumwell said. “This is really aimed at one bit of the population. We know that there are laws already like blocking traffic that they could be enforcing, and this is also something where we’re punishing the symptoms of poverty rather than addressing the issues of poverty. So I think that’s more how we’re looking at this.”
Lesley Nash, a staff attorney for Mountain State Justice’s Morgantown office, said the past discussion of the ordinance makes it clear the commission aims to infringe on the constitutionally protected speech of people asking for charity.
“The commission has been at great pains to say that this is not targeting poor and homeless people, their past statements notwithstanding,” she said. “Even if you follow that line of argument and say, ‘OK, well, maybe this isn’t unconstitutional on its face, we still strongly believe that this ordinance is not sufficiently narrowly tailored to avoid burdening a whole bunch of speech, and would therefore also be unconstitutional under that metric.
“So to our view, kind of either way you dice it, there are some serious constitutional problems with it,” Nash said.
Baumwell said the ordinance is part of a “large-scale attack” on unhoused people. Parkersburg recently passed an ordinance prohibiting public camping. Wheeling is considering a similar law.
“This is part of a large wave of hate towards unhoused people and people who struggle with poverty,” Baumwell said.
During the meeting Wednesday, Commissioner Jeffrey Arnett said the commission received 11 emails from people opposed to the ordinance for reasons that were expressed during a recent public hearing. They included attorneys at Mountain State Justice.
Arnett said regardless of how the bill came about it has morphed into something that does not outlaw or target panhandling or criminalize homelessness.
“When you’ve got a situation where there’s four or five lanes of traffic and you’ve got an individual sitting in the middle of the road, it creates a safety hazard not just for the individual in the road but for the drivers,” Arnett said. “And so that’s what the ordinance that’s before us is being considered.”
Commissioner Sean Sikora also denied that the bill is an attack on homelessness and said it promotes safety.
“I think we’ve done everything possible to be clear about our intentions with this,” he said. “And I do understand that people may disagree, but it is a simple measure to ensure the safety of our pedestrians and our people traveling in those areas.”
Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor, and first offenses are punishable by a written warning. The penalty of second and subsequent offenses is a citation and $100 fine.
Nash said the enforcement of the ordinance with a misdemeanor charge and fine is part of the increasing criminalization of homelessness in West Virginia.
People asking for money won’t be able to pay a $100 fine, she said.
“It will almost certainly lead to an increase in the number of people being incarcerated for the crime of being poor,” she said. “And we live in a state where our jails are already horrifically overfull and understaffed. And this I think, is, you know, part of this cycle of the criminalization of homelessness.”
Rather than target the visible symptoms of homelessness, Baumwell said counties and cities should be focusing on the reasons people are in poverty.
“That means making sure that there are proper job entry programs, that we’re reducing barriers to people who have been justice impacted or have been struggling with substance abuse to get back into the workforce,” Baumwell said. “Do we have proper social supports for people who might be struggling with mental health and need mental health resources? So those are the things that we can and should be doing instead of just criminalizing poverty.”
While the ordinance passed Wednesday is for unincorporated areas of Monongalia County, other municipalities in the county may also adopt it.
Star City Mayor Sharon Doyle said county officials anticipate the cities of Morgantown, Star City, Granville and Westover all adopt the same ordinance. She said last week her town’s council would consider it after the commission passed theirs.
“If the county is going to enforce it in the areas that the sheriff’s department covers, if other municipalities don’t do something in similarity to that, then you’re opening it up for people to move around,” Doyle said. “So we don’t have a big issue with [panhandling] in Star City right now, and we want to keep it that way. But I think that’s something that, the majority, I would think that all municipalities are going to look at and say, ‘hey we need to stay in line and do this as well.’”
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