The city of Arcata, just north of Eureka in Humboldt County, has long been a mecca for homeless and transient young people who gather in its public square, often soliciting food or money. But after years of allowing their public begging, the city passed an ordinance in 2010 that forbids not only "aggressive panhandling" — touching or blocking a person, repeatedly asking for money, using abusive language, approaching an occupied vehicle — but all soliciting within 20 feet of ATMs, supermarkets, retail stores, restaurants, bus shelters and stops, and any intersection. It also prohibits soliciting on a bus, inside public parking lots and on pedestrian foot bridges. The city defines panhandling as asking for money or goods or even holding up a sign requesting a handout. The result is effectively a ban on begging in the commercial area of Arcata.
The city's frustration is understandable, but its remedy is too broad and too punitive, emblematic of the excesses that many municipalities succumb to in confronting the unsightly but all too human problems associated with panhandling.
A lawsuit filed last year — which is expected to be ruled on soon — argues that the ordinance violates 1st Amendment rights because it is "constitutionally overbroad." It is so vague that it prohibits displaying a sign asking for money, and so broad that Girl Scouts couldn't set up a table outside a supermarket to sell cookies.