GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Ernest Sims, who is unemployed and occasionally homeless, says he takes no pride in panhandling.
He is one of two convicted panhandlers suing the state and the City of Grand Rapids over a law that makes begging in public a crime.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, asking a judge to strike down the law.
"I see no harm in asking for a little change if somebody can spare it," said Sims, 54, who said he is a veteran on disability and last worked about 8 months ago in a temporary job. "I feel a little embarrassed. It's not something I like to do. It's embarrassing to me. It really is. It's not something I like to do."
The ACLU says the state law that bans begging is unconstitutional, violating free speech.
Local ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman says the office was shocked when it obtained police reports on panhandling arrests in Grand Rapids -- 399 over the last three-and-a-half years. Arrests skyrocketed from 87 in 2008 to 142 in 2010. Through the first part of this year, police arrested nearly 80.
They found that about a third of the arrests involved men and women who carry signs. Among those was the other plaintiff, James Speet, a homeless man who lives in a tent and was arrested with a sign that read: "Need Job, God Bless."
The ACLU study found that those arrested were sentenced to a total of 1,641 days in jail.
"It's not a crime to be poor," Aukerman said. "It's not a crime to ask for help. It's not a crime to say 'I'm unemployed.' That's what we're protecting here."
Many of the arrests are in the Heartside area in the central section of downtown, the ACLU said, but that they happen all across the city.
Grand Rapids police have arrested Sims four times in the last six years for panhandling, the latest in July. He said he was begging for bus fare at the time.
"They're saying if you approach anybody, period, you don't have the right to approach anybody, period, to ask for anything," Sims said.
"If they see you walking down the street, if I walk past you and just say, 'Excuse me sir, can you spare a little change?' and you say no, I keep on walking, right? What is the harm in that?"
Grand Rapids city attorneys said they hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment, other than to say they will work with the state of Michigan to defend against the suit.
The owner of Sanctuary Folk Art on South Division Avenue says panhandlers can scare away customers. So, he appreciates the help from Grand Rapids police.
"I guess the ACLU never came and talked to me," Reb Roberts said.
Sims say some business owners are over-reacting.
"Most of the people that's panhandling are not really standing directly in front of businesses," he said. "We just see people coming out or people walking down the street, and we just ask for a little change, or whatever. We don't really threaten their customers."
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