The Oklahoma City Council heard proposed loosening of regulations to an anti-panhandling ordinance on Tuesday. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has an existing lawsuit over the ordinance, saying it violated the 1st and 14th amendments.
The ordinance impacts the ability of Curbside Chronicle vendors to earn money. The street newspaper helps homeless people build a work history and lift themselves out of homelessness.
It was nearly 90 degrees when Marquise Benningfield started work on a steamy July morning. Like many people who work in the hot Oklahoma summers, he put on a hat to shield himself from the sun. However, Benningfield doesn’t roof houses or pave roads, he sells magazines trying to lift himself out of homelessness.
Benningfield was 21 years old when his mom sent him from his home in Tulsa to a ministry in Oklahoma City in an effort to help him overcome a drug problem. “My mom thought it was like a rehab. So she sent me, but it really is like a ministry where you work for free,” he said. Because he didn’t receive treatment, Benningfield’s drug problem persisted, and he was kicked out of the ministry, leaving him homeless.
He had to learn how to survive on the streets for the first time in a new city. “I was in a tent in the woods majority of the time. You have to move a lot because when they get wind of where you’re at, they tend to move you around. I did that a lot.”
Benningfield also started panhandling to try to make money, but after a few months he found out about Oklahoma’s street newspaper, The Curbside Chronicle and met with director Ranya O’Connor. “The role of the magazine is to employ and empower individuals experiencing homeless,” O’Connor said.
The 75 vendors who currently work with The Curbside Chronicle buy their magazines at The Homeless Alliance for $0.75 each and sell them for $2.00 each as street vendors. O’Connor says this process helps homeless people build a work history that can lead to other jobs, but it’s similar to what they’ve been doing.
“It’s kind of like panhandling basically, but you selling something besides with a sign or cardboard or something,” Benningfield said.
In 2015, Oklahoma City Councilwoman Meg Salyer introduced an ordinance that threatened the ability of Curbside Chronicle vendors to make money, and organizers, including O’Connor, worried that it might end the paper.
Salyer said the ordinance that passed in December of 2015 was to address what she called “safety issues” on behalf of the citizens. She said she received calls saying people panhandling for money in the medians were causing problems. The new ordinance prohibited panhandlers from standing in medians less than 200 feet wide.
While the new ordinance may eliminate safety issues created by panhandlers, it also threatened the income source for charities and Curbside Chronicle vendors who used the same medians to make money.
In response to its passage the American Civil Liberties Union and a Curbside Chronicle vendor filed a lawsuit saying the ordinance violated of the 1st and 14th Amendments.
“There are similar ordinances in other states. I tried to present an ordinance that [included] everyone’s concerns with regard to the amendments. Different people have different opinions on whether I did that,” said Salyer.
“It was really scary [to think about] what the future would hold,” O’Connor said. However, she said the Oklahoma City community really rallied around Curbside Chronicle vendors. She also said she and her staff have worked closely with members of the Oklahoma City police department to train vendors to stay out of the medians.
The vendors have noticed the Oklahoma City community’s pride in the paper too. Benningfield says he makes more working with Curbside Chronicle than he did when he panhandled. “I gotten $100 bills with Curbside, but typically it was $1 or $5 or $10 bills [when I was panhandling],” he said.
Benningfield says his customers are more willing to help vendors because of the purpose behind the paper. He said, “They just tend to respect you because [you’re] trying in a different way.”
No Curbside Chronicle vendors have been arrested or ticketed since the ordinance took effect, but Benningfield says he still worries about it because he was stopped by the police for being in the median while he was still panhandling.
O’Connor said vendors were discouraged immediately after the ordinance passed, “It was difficult, there was a decrease in sales as vendors had to move locations and lost the connections from the consistent interaction.”
However, she believes they have overcome the challenges and are stronger now than they were before the ordinance passed.
The lawsuit is still pending in federal district court.
This story was produced by University of Tulsa student Charity Barton as part of NPR's Next Generation Radio project. KOSU hosted the project this summer, which aims to train the next generation of public radio journalists. Read more about Charity's experience during the project here.