Public train and bus stations often serve as temporary shelters for homeless people in America. I recall my first time visiting New Jersey’s Newark Penn Station. The big, warm station with its long, winding halls had multiple eateries and lots of wide, comfy pew-like benches to sit on – or take up residence on, as many of the homeless population of Newark had done. There was not a place to sit besides the floor of the station if you were waiting for your Amtrak or NJ Transit trains because so many people were essentially living inside the station.
Homeless folks inside the station also panhandled around the station and its restaurants. I wondered if this was OK with the shop owners and station managers – I’d seen panhandlers in train stations back home in Boston, but they usually stayed in one spot with a sign asking for help with food or money. But inside of a McDonald’s? Coming table to table to demand money or food? Arguing with people who say they have nothing to give? That was a much different from what I was used to. I still do not have an answer for what I saw in Newark, but it seems like even shortly after my visit, the city still wasn’t doing a good job serving its homeless population.
The observations I made in Newark Penn Station piqued my interest in this article about BART, the public transportation system in San Francisco, potentially banning panhandling – and even musical performers – inside the “paid” sections of its station. Although panhandling is in fact protected by the First Amendment, five city transit systems have banned panhandling in their paid sections (N.Y.C., L.A., and D.C. to name a few.) BART argues that after you swipe your transit card or ticket, and you enter the section of the station where you would board a train or bus, you are now inside of a private forum – an area in which you have paid to get in, and public laws do not apply. The ACLU argues that just because the area is a “private forum” does not mean that people cannot express their beliefs there; and that this proposal is a suppression of freedom of speech. If people are in a public station, no restrictions can be put on their speech.
Governments distinguish “aggressive panhandling” (like what I described in Newark) from “passive panhandling” (i.e., sitting with a sign). The way I see it, it’s people in need of help asking for it, whether it be a sign or coming up to your table and asking you to buy them food. BART officials say most of the panhandling that goes on in their stations is “aggressive,” but I don’t believe that’s a reason to ban panhandling in its entirety – especially since it is often a last-chance option for very desperate people disserviced by society. Like ACLU staffer Abre Conner says – why is BART putting all its energy into crafting anti-homeless rules when they could allot the money towards helping the people who seek refuge in their stations? Is this a freedom of speech issue, or a public services one?