Panhandler, nonprofit, street musician challenge Pensacola panhandling ban in new lawsuit

FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, file photo, people walk past a homeless man asking for money on 14th Street in New York. One app dots a map with users’ images of homelessness in New York City. The apps, sites and social media accounts have spiraled out of a season of anxiety and frustration about rising homelessness in the nation’s biggest city. And they are igniting questions about technology, tolerance and citizenship in an age of crowdsourcing. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

PENSACOLA, FL (WKRG) —- The Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will represent three individuals suing the City of Pensacola and Police Chief Tommi Lyter for constitutional violations after passing the downtown panhandling ordinance.

The downtown panhandling ordinance, which makes soliciting donations in the Downtown Visitors’ District a finable offense, passed 5-2 during a contentious City Council meeting May 13 after months of debate.

Food Not Bombs, a volunteer organization that distributes food every Friday evening in downtown Pensacola, says it relies on donations to keep its organization running and often solicits them with a small donation box.

Catherina Cardwell lost her job as a nurse after 23 years last summer and holds a sign reading “Homeless. Anything Helps. God Bless. Diabetic. Hungry.” to help pay for her medical expenses.

Nathan Marona sings and plays his guitar near Plaza Ferdinand with a tip jar.

Under Pensacola’s new ordinance that starts tomorrow, all three of these actions will be penalized up to $500, which has lead the three to joint-file the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, claims the ordinance targets one form of free speech — solicitations — and especially targets homeless individuals as well as organizations that help the homeless.

“It has an especially discriminatory effect on the homeless community,” the lawsuit reads.

The ordinance, co-sponsored by City Council President Brian Spencer and Mayor Ashton Hayward, is intended to promote tourism, create an attractive city, protect downtown businesses and prevent panhandlers from endangering pedestrians.

The suit responds by saying such claims are vague, authorizing and encouraging “discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement,” going on to say that it should be no different that businesses can often obstruct public sidewalks with tables and advertisements and that there are already laws in place to protect public safety.

A city’s spokesperson says the city has not been served yet and cannot comment on the situation. News 5 will continue to follow this story.

Click here to view the full lawsuit.

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