The ordinance punishes unhoused community members with a Class C misdemeanor, paired with an egregious fine.
Dallas, Texas – The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) filed a lawsuit against the City of Dallas for violating the first amendment through its latest attempt at criminalizing homelessness. 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. TCRP is filing the lawsuit alongside the Southern Methodist University (SMU) First Amendment Law Clinic and Waters Kraus & Paul, LLP on behalf of Alton Waggoner, Teri Heishman, Hannah Lebovits, and Kawana Scott.
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. 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.
“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.”
“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 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.”
“Medians give demonstrators unique access to the public – my use of medians for First Amendment activities is informed by the history of the Civil Rights Movement where rallies and protests frequently occurred on medians and areas adjacent to the streets and were critical to achieving civil liberties victories,” said Kawana Scott, Community Organizer and Chair of DFW AARPR. “I am worried that this Ordinance will be used to punish and criminalize protestors with which Dallas city officials disagree . . . it will only suppress our ability to advocate on messages critical to our mission.”
“Medians and street corners are important sites of expression where people share their needs and interact with others who can help them, people like myself and thousands of other Dallas residents,” said Hannah Lebovits, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs and Planning at the University of Texas at Arlington.
The Texas Civil Rights Project is boldly serving the movement for equality and justice in and out of the courts. We use our tools of litigation and legal advocacy to protect and advance the civil rights of everyone in Texas, and we partner with communities across the state to serve the rising movement for social justice. We undertake our work with a vision of a Texas in which all communities can thrive with dignity, justice and without fear.
SMU Dedman School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic opened in Fall 2020, thanks to a generous gift of $900,000 from the Stanton Foundation. The Clinic focuses on First Amendment issues including free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly and petition.
About Walter Kraus & Paul
Waters Kraus & Paul is a national plaintiffs’ law firm concentrating on a diverse practice of complex product liability, toxic tort, qui tam whistleblower, and personal injury/wrongful death cases. With offices in Texas, California, and by appointment in Illinois, Waters Kraus & Paul has litigated cases in jurisdictions across the United States on behalf of individuals from all 50 states and internationally.