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  • Writer's pictureTravis Fife

New Lawsuit Against the City of Dallas for Criminalizing Poverty

Today, we filed a lawsuit against the City of Dallas for violating the first amendment through its latest attempt at criminalizing homelessness, an ordinance that punishes unhoused community members with a Class C misdemeanor, paired with an egregious fine. The Ordinance punishes the simple act of poor people asking for help. It also restricts protesters and those trying to help the homeless. The lawsuit seeks to overturn the ordinance targeting the most vulnerable Dallas community members.

Not only is it cruel to punish people who are in most need, but this ordinance violates the first amendment right to freedom of speech. That’s why we are partnering with the SMU First Amendment Law Clinic and Waters & Kraus LLP to represent people in Dallas who are unhoused, as well as community organizers who use medians as places of protest and advocacy.

“Rather than finding solutions that actually help the unhoused community of Dallas, the City seeks to erase its most vulnerable community members through fines and jail,” said Travis Fife, Legal Fellow with the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Criminal Injustice program. “If someone is in such dire need that they are out on the streets requesting aid from their neighbors, they do not have $500 to pay a fine. The first amendment allows people to ask for help, protest, or help others in public spaces - this ordinance clearly violates that fundamental right. This harmful ordinance must be overturned, we hope through this lawsuit we can stand alongside our most vulnerable neighbors.”

The ordinance seeks to charge any person standing or walking on medians with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500. Despite phrasing the ordinance as a "public safety" measure, the entirety of the debate was centered around Dallas’ unhoused population.

“To get the funds I need for my basic survival, I frequently stand within four feet of the street and use medians of less than six feet to panhandle. Without the ability to do so, it would be impossible to buy food, water, and other basic necessities,” said Alton Waggoner, unhoused Dallas community member and plaintiff of the lawsuit. “I live in constant fear of police harassment and enforcement of the newly passed ordinance. I have faced enforcement by police of similar ordinances in the past based on the panhandling activity I must continue to do for survival.”

The ordinance was passed in October of this year and has been enforced since late November, impacting the estimated four thousand residents of Dallas experiencing homelessness just as we enter the holiday season.

“The new ordinance poses a serious barrier for my survival because it prevents me from even sitting on the sidewalk or street corner to ask pedestrians for help,” said Teri Heishman, unhoused Dallas community member and plaintiff of the lawsuit. “Even before this new ordinance, I was punished several times by police for being homeless. I have no money to pay a citation, but panhandling is currently my only method of survival. I intend to continue panhandling because without it, I have no way of providing for myself.”

We invite you to join us to protect the free speech rights of everyone in our community, and help us to stop the criminalization of poverty by signing up for updates from our campaign. You’ll have an opportunity to come together with others from the community and join our upcoming efforts to stop this ordinance and create change for the majority Black and Brown people experiencing homelessness in Dallas.

You can view the filing here, along with the ordinance here.

Update: On January 6, 2023, we filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, which can be viewed here along with the appendix here.

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1 Comment

Ri Jam
Ri Jam
Sep 21, 2023

Its a $15 dollar fee in Austin to obtain a permit to "panhandle". Most of the instances business or police criminally trespass many asking for small change. Criminal trespass, penal code 30.05 doesn't give police a right to discriminate. They essentially falsify data to make the displaced homeless look like the problem of violence they excerbate in order to profit from insurance. 56% of violent crime goes unsolved; yet if they'd spend time and effort apprehending perpetrators of victims, instead of being lazy and collecting bail bonds, contigencies the streets wouldn't appear to be so nasty.

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