By Michael Hill
In downtown New Brunswick, a man stops and chats with wheelchair-bound John Fleming and offers him money.
“Isn’t he poor? Isn’t he the least of us? Aren’t we supposed to help the needy?” he asked.
Fleming may be homeless but he’s not hopeless or helpless in his battle against the begging ban in New Brunswick.
“I don’t ask people for money. I just hold a sign,” Fleming said.
A sign that reads: “Broke, please help. Thank you, god bless you.”
Fleming says about three months ago, New Brunswick police began citing him, saying he was violating the city’s panhandling ban. City Attorney William Hamilton said, “He wasn’t selected for any reason.”
“I believe I have a right to hold a sign just like anybody has a right to advertise. You know, like a store handing out fliers for their store. Same thing,” Fleming said.
Fed up, one day Fleming researched online and solicited help from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
“The right to ask your neighbors for assistance or food is a First Amendment right and essentially what it does is criminalize being homeless or poor,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne Locicero.
“We’re not criminalizing poverty. We’re trying to have an orderly city,” Hamilton said.
New Brunswick police have cited Fleming four times for violating the city’s ban against panhandling. The last time came just hours after the ACLU and the Coalition to End Homelessness in New Jersey sued the city last Thursday.
“It seems like all over the country that we are trying to pass laws or enforce laws to push the homeless out of sight. You might have heard about a Florida man who was arrested for feeding the homeless and I think sometimes it makes us uncomfortable when we see people who are on the street. But, I think the right response to that is to try to help people not to punish them for speaking,” said Coalition to End Homelessness in New Jersey Executive Director Deb Ellis.
“It’s one the city has been enforcing from time to time,” Hamilton said. “This ordinance is probably 80 years old. It’s on the books so that people on the streets would not be bothered by panhandlers. We’re like most other cities. I suspect if you went to most of the other towns in Middlesex County you’ll find the same ordinance or one very much like it on the books.”
If this anti-panhandling law has been on the books in New Brunswick for decades, as the attorney says, then why now? Then why is New Brunswick all of a sudden enforcing it?
“We’re going to take a look at the ordinance. It’s never been questioned before. I’m sure it’s going to be modified and I hope people will be satisfied with it when we get finished modifying it,” said Hamilton.
To that, the Superior Court judge hearing the case says, “Isn’t that refreshing?”
In this first round, score a win for Fleming. The judge issued a temporary restraining order — blocking New Brunswick from enforcing the begging ban. And another law that requires a permit for any one or any organization asking for donations. He’s a scheduled another hearing for February.