Oak Park, Aurora, Decatur, Peoria, and Urbana have also dropped panhandling bans

Chicago City Council has repealed the city’s panhandling ordinance, after three prominent advocacy groups sent letters in August to 15 Illinois cities to warn that panhandling bans are unconstitutional.

Letters were sent by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty as part of a national campaign to reverse discriminatory and unconstitutional laws.

In addition to Chicago, letters were delivered August 28 to officials in Aurora, Carbondale, Champaign, Cicero, Danville, Decatur, East St. Louis, Elgin, Joliet, Moline, Oak Park, Peoria, Rockford and Urbana.

Chicago City Council quietly repealed its ordinance Nov. 14, notifying advocates two weeks later.

“Chicago's panhandling ordinance was actively enforced, so this is an important victory for people in Chicago who panhandle as a means of a survival," said Diane O'Connell, community lawyer at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “We have spoken to hundreds of people experiencing homelessness who have been ticketed or arrested for violating this ordinance – locked up or charged fines they cannot pay for nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights. The city was forced to recognize that everyone has the right to ask for help.”

The August letters notified targeted communities that since 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court demanded closer examination of laws that regulate speech based on its content (Reed v. Town of Gilbert), panhandling ordinances were repealed or struck down by the courts in more than 55 cities.

The response across Illinois is impressive. In addition to Chicago, Oak ParkPeoriaUrbanaAurora and Decatur also acted to repeal their regressive panhandling ordinances. Elgin and East St. Louis said they no longer enforce a ban. Cicero and Champaign have said they are examining their ordinances. 

Carbondale, Danville, Joliet, Moline and Rockford have not responded to the August letter.

“We are pleased that Chicago and the other communities have acted in response to our warning in August,” said Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU senior staff counsel. “Our Constitution does not permit a lower standard of protection for speech simply because the speaker is someone in need of assistance. We need the other communities to act with dispatch.”

“We hope that even Illinois communities that we did not send letters will take the opportunity to examine and repeal their panhandling ordinances.”

The letter to Chicago noted that the now-repealed ordinance served “no compelling state interest. Distaste for a certain type of speech, or a certain type of speaker, is not even a legitimate state interest, let alone a compelling one. Shielding unwilling listeners from messages disfavored by the state is likewise not a permissible state interest.”