By Caden Pearson
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, has approved a new bill that will make it illegal to panhandle or loiter on state highways and roadways.
The legislation, referred to as HB 24 (pdf), prohibits individuals from engaging in panhandling or loitering activities on specific state roads, including the Boulevard, Atlanta Highway, Vaughn Road, and Taylor Road in Montgomery County.
Offenders can face charges of a class C misdemeanor, and repeated violations may result in fines or even imprisonment.
The bill has received support from those who argue it will address concerns related to public safety. However, advocates for the homeless community have expressed concerns about the potential consequences of the law.
State Rep. Reed Ingram of Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor, has emphasized that law enforcement officials will have discretion in dealing with offenders. They may issue warnings or provide transportation to shelters where individuals can seek assistance.
“The police can ask them to leave and if they don’t leave, it’s a law just like your seatbelt law now,” Ingram, said, reported WSFA.
Ingram has made it clear that the intention of the legislation is not to harm the homeless population but rather to ensure the safety of both motorists and pedestrians.
“It’s about saving the people that are on the side of the road and saving people from having to go to prison if they hit one,” she said. “We’ve had over 800 get killed in 2021 and so this is very important.”
Activities Considered Loitering
The bill outlines activities that constitute loitering, including begging, gambling, soliciting prostitution or sodomy, congregating in public while masked, and loitering around educational institutions without proper authorization. It also extends the definition of loitering to encompass loitering on state roadways.
Violators of the law can face criminal penalties, with subsequent violations classified as a Class C misdemeanor. However, the bill emphasizes that law enforcement officers have the discretion to issue warnings or transport individuals to nearby emergency housing facilities, if applicable.
Support for the new law also comes from Montgomery County Commissioner Ronda Walker, who considers panhandling a public safety issue, WSFA reported. Walker believes the law will enable law enforcement to take more proactive measures in “helping these people and protecting our citizens at the same time.”
However, questions have arisen regarding the availability of shelters to accommodate those in need.
“We’re not a shelter,” Donna Leslie, executive director of the new Carastar Health Crisis Center in Montgomery, told WSFA. “So they’re not gonna stay just because they’re homeless. We’ll admit them if their crisis situation needs further treatment.”
The demolition of The Salvation Army’s facility to make way for the city’s Whitewater Rafting Park has resulted in a limited capacity for their services.
Meanwhile, the Friendship Mission currently serves as the only overnight shelter in Montgomery, but it is reportedly already operating at maximum capacity and requires additional funding to expand its programs.
Critics argue that the law could potentially criminalize homelessness, a concern shared by advocates for the homeless community. Nevertheless, proponents of the law maintain that its purpose is to enhance public safety by mitigating the risks associated with panhandling and loitering on state roads.
The law is scheduled to come into effect statewide on Aug. 1.