Louisiana, Homeless, Panhandling

Advocates Are Criticizing Louisiana Law That Criminalizes Panhandling

According to advocates for the unhoused, similar laws in other parts of the country have been struck from the books over First Amendment concerns for those who ask the public for assistance.

As laws that criminalize people without housing continue to expand in use across the U.S., a law in Louisiana aimed at criminalizing panhandling, an activity many of the unhoused participate in, has met some resistance.

Both advocates for the unhoused and New Orleans officials have criticized the law, which cleared the Louisiana State Legislature on June 5 and is now awaiting a decision from Gov. Jeff Landry.

As Nola.com reported, the proposed law has received pushback from politicians in New Orleans. The law was proposed by Republican State Rep. Dixon McMakin of Baton Rouge as he told Nola.com via text message: McMakin reasons that the bill would improve public safety. “It is about the safety of all people,” McMakin wrote. “Roads and right of ways where cars are were made for vehicles, not people to be in them.”

According to advocates for the unhoused, similar laws in other parts of the country have been struck from the books over First Amendment concerns for those who ask the public for assistance. As Eric Tars, the senior policy director for the National Homelessness Law Center, told the outlet, “Instead of passing unconstitutional laws, cities and states must focus on addressing the dire lack of housing that people can afford and the resulting homelessness crisis.”

In 2022, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) cautioned communities against enacting laws that criminalize the existence of the homeless population, saying that such laws make the crisis worse. “Criminalization does not reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness. It breaks connections people had made with providers trying to help and exacerbates homelessness and the conditions that lead to it—such as health problems and racial disparities.”

According to the 2024 Point In Time count, New Orleans’ homeless population is primarily composed of Black people (72%), but the share of Latinx people who are unhoused is swiftly rising. Adjusted for population, however, the State of Louisiana has one of the lowest rates of homelessness in the country, coming in with the third lowest rate. According to Meghan Henry, the director of the Annual Homelessness Report, homelessness is fluid, not static. Henry told U.S. News & World Report, “Homelessness is an experience, and it’s one that’s incredibly fluid. So people don’t become homeless and stay homeless until they’re not anymore. It is this sort of in and out of homelessness.”

Henry also indicated that when a significant investment in policies to address homelessness at either the state or federal level is made, homelessness tends to decrease. “The Bush administration put a ton of resources toward ending chronic homelessness, and during that period, that population declined nationally. Similarly, Obama then put a lot of resources toward veterans, and that population dropped.” 

Louisiana could look to Houston for examples of ways to get homeless people off the street. As Mandy Chapman Semple, the architect of the City of Houston’s nationally recognized homeless strategy, told Vox, city and state leaders must develop the political will to embrace a more radical approach to addressing homelessness.

Semple also echoed the USICH’s guidance, saying, “Every time we push someone needlessly through the criminal justice system, it affects their ability to get housed because every landlord is running a criminal background check. These nuisance charges create the perception that they’re a criminal and not a good tenant, and it’s just a tremendous waste of law enforcement capacity, too.”

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