EL PASO — On a late Sunday afternoon Eddie Salas Cano, 32, walked from the Opportunity Center on Myrtle Avenue to the busy gateway intersection on Missouri and Cotton wearing worn-out clothes and he stood near the cars holding up a sign that read “Homeless.”
Some drivers quickly rolled up their windows as Salas paced back and forth hoping for someone to drop a dollar. The meager moneys that homeless people like Cano pick up at intersections could be threatened by a new city ordinance that could target them even if they don’t pose a threat.
“I have no family and no support, so I usually go to the Opportunity Center for assistance. When I don’t have any money to eat I stand holding my sign hoping for at least two dollars for the day,” Cano said.
On October 9, the El Paso City Council passed an ordinance that bans aggressive solicitation in certain parts of the city in front of homes and businesses. According to the new law, an approach for money that involves physical contact would be considered “aggressive.” Other infractions would include following a person, using abusive or obscene language or approaching someone in a way that implies physical harm or theft.
The ordinance was first presented to the El Paso City Council on August 30, 2012 during a special meeting. The ordinance prohibits aggressive solicitation of money or services within fifteen feet of any business, bank, and ATM machines among other public places.
City Representative Susie Byrd disagreed with some aspects of the ordinance’s definition of “aggressive solicitation.” She believes the city has laws already in place that prohibit aggressive solicitation and that the El Paso Police Department has the authority to deal with those cases.
“I think that this part of the ordinance will only be targeted at homeless people and I think it will be liberally applied in a way that I don’t think is correct and ethical,” Byrd said. “An ordinance like this could be more costly because it’s certainly more expensive to put someone in jail than provide them treatment.”
The ordinance does not apply only to individuals, but it also includes charities and other groups that try to sell items or raise money in the street. The only group not affected by the ordinance is the fire department, which is allowed under Texas law to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy.
The ordinance was initiated by numerous complaints from citizens who were victims of aggressive solicitation. “Sometimes we get aggressive solicitors around our store. It helps our business when they’re not around because sometimes they are aggressive and I’ve seen one of them knock down a lady and they tried to take her purse,” said Cora Garcia, owner of Sunrise Games and Comics in North East El Paso.
Supporters of the ordinance believe it will also protect individuals from potential injures caused by standing on the medians near busy streets.
City Representative Courtney Niland said her office has received numerous complains from drivers who see teenagers standing on the median raising funds for different causes. She said this is a safety concern for both the kids and the drivers.
“We certainly want to be supportive of those who want to fund-raise for their school, for boy scouts and girl scouts or whatever they’re trying to do, but we also don’t want to put them in harm’s way,” Niland said.
Attorney Evertte Saucedo said he personally disagrees with the proposal and considers it a violation of the first amendment.
“It’s an erosion of our personal liberties and freedoms that are guaranteed to us by the constitution and if this goes through we will have allowed the city of El Paso to make a small dent in our first amendment freedoms. But it’s a dent none the less,” Saucedo said.
In several federal court decisions solicitation has been considered protected free speech. This has been debated in other cities such as Michigan in the case of James Speet and Ernest Sims vs. Bill Schuette and the City of Grand Rapids, where they challenged a statue that made it a crime to beg in a public place. In this case, the federal court ruled that begging and panhandling were free speech protected by the first amendment.
Unlike the Grand Rapids case, El Paso’s proposed ordinance does not ban all soliciting. It would only ban it near certain public places. Similar ordinances are already in place in different cities around Texas including San Antonio and Austin. None of the ordinances have been challenged in court in those cities.