FLINT TWP. — Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark, the beggars have come to town. Some in rags, and some in tags, And some in velvet gowns.
That age-old nursery rhyme shows that begging is nothing new and also suggests that some of them are not poor.
Like many other cities, Flint Township officials are getting a growing number of complaints about street corner beggars, including allegations that some of them are coming to town driving luxury vehicles, according to a discussion at the township board meeting last week.
The discussion responded to a complaint from a resident who spoke during public comment.
Glen Andrews of Mapletree Drive said the growing number of panhandlers “is a black eye on the township.”
He voiced his concerns about beggars who in recent months have set up in front of Sam’s Club on Corunna Road and McDonald’s on Linden Road in addition to a long-established spot alongside the I-75 freeway exit to Miller Road.
“It just looks bad,’’ Andrews said. “Other people have seen them getting in nice cars and taking off. They are not needy people. They are scammers.”
Andrews added that outside visitors have told him they don’t like coming to the township because of the growing number of street beggars.
Township Supervisor Karyn Miller said that Andrews complaint is one of many being received of late from township residents but the solution is not as simple as arresting them.
A federal court ruling last summer ruled that peaceful panhandling is a form of free speech that is no different from other charitable groups that take to the streets to ask for donations.
Police Chief George Sippert added that Flint Township is not the only community dealing with this situation. Police officers used to be able to enforce an ordinance prohibiting panhandlers but the court ruling has negated that.
“We have been dealing with this issue for well over six months now,’ Chief Sippert said. “There was a (U.S>) Circuit Court decision that determined now in the State of Michigan that (panhandling) is considered a form of free speech,”
Township police issued one citation after that ruling came down and were notified by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that further action would open them department up to a lawsuit, he said.
“Our attorney tells us that if we as police officers knowingly violate someone’s civil rights, we lose our government immunity,” he said. “So it is not as simple as going out and getting rid of them because they are vagrants.”
Sippert noted the areas where they are standing are public land.
Miller said that the board is working with the township attorney and police department to try to figure out some measures to legally place restrictions on the proliferation of panhandlers.
Trustee Frank Kasle, noted that similar to a recently passed ordinance restricting the hours, duration and operations of door-to-door solicitors, the township should have some legal recourse for controlling panhandlers.
In October 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sent letters to 84 municipalities across the state notifying them that anti-begging ordinances were unconstitutional and should be repealed. Their website lists by county which municipalities received letters. Flint Township and Swartz Creek were the only two listed in Genesee County.
Addressed to Flint Township Attorney Peter Goodstein, the Flint Township letter stated, in part: “We have reviewed your city ordinance and understand it to read as follows: It shall be unlawful hereunder for a person to be a … vagrant. The following persons shall be deemed vagrants: … Any person wandering abroad and begging ….
Flint Charter Township, Mich., Code § 6.1 0-5(1 )(b) (2006).”
Comparable to the state law struck down by the courts, the Flint Township ordinance “prohibits begging in public places and is therefore unconstitutional on its face. We therefore advise you to repeal the ordinance and to instruct your local law enforcement agency to stop enforcing it immediately.”
The letter further stated that the ACLU recognizes that municipalities have legitimate concerns about public safety.
“Nothing prohibits the government from regulating directly the conduct the government identifies as problematic. The government can and does prohibit fraud, assault, and trespass. But what the government cannot do without violating the First Amendment is categorically prohibit the speech and expressive elements that may sometimes be associated with the harmful conduct; it must protect the speech and expression, and focus narrowly and directly on the conduct it seeks to prohibit,” the letter stated.