Federal Appeals Court Shoots Down Michigan's Panhandling LawS

A federal appeals court ruled today that a 1929 Michigan law prohibiting panhandling in public spaces is unconstitutional, saying the legislation "simply bans an entire category of activity that the First Amendment protects," The Detroit News reports.

The case dates back to 2011 when two homeless men in Grand Rapids were arrested after asking for spare change. Grand Rapids Police, the court noted, arrested or issued tickets to almost 400 people for begging between 2008 and 2011, of which 211 went to jail.

The timing of the ruling is worth noting: Earlier this year, we were talking about how the Detroit Police Department was accused of allegedly picking up homeless people and dropping them off outside of city limits. (This came as no surprise.)

Consider the numbers relating to Michigan's homeless: A study from 2008 said Michigan had the highest number of homeless persons in the midwest. The News reported (via MLive) in April that more than 37,500 students in metro Detroit were homeless during the 2011-2012 school year, up 66 percent over the course of four years. A report from 2010 found that almost 1,000 veterans lived on the streets or in homeless shelters in Michigan.

Clearly there's some serious and, perhaps, underreported issues pertaining to Michigan's homeless.

Then, last month, two homeless Detroiters — James Van Horn and Michael Alston — were killed by a hit-and-run driver, generating a flurry of reports from local media outlets about the "iconic" pair, commonly seen around downtown Detroit.

Initially, it seemed — maybe I'm one of a few who recoiled at this — reports carried no name for Van Horn or Alston: " 'Eat 'em Up Tigers' Guy and a guy known as 'Dreadlock Mike' are believed to have been the victims of a hit-and-run incident."

Two individuals, one whom "you couldn't go to Comerica Park without seeing," and yet it seemed required to refer to them by a common nickname, even after they were identified. Show of hands: Who asked for either of their names? Does that bother us?

Believe me, I know the pair had a lasting impact on many, not just as a goddamn "fixture" one may have encountered before a ballgame. But the aftereffect of it all, for me, has been incredibly disconcerting.

Take this column from just last week, "Detroit's wackiest sports fans spark stadium memories." In the first paragraph:

With the passing of Comerica Park fixture "Eat em Up Tigers" guy recently, memories were sparked of other colorful Detroit sports Superfans.

Spanning the last few decades, here are just some of the special, charismatic and mostly popular figures who devoted much of their lives to worshipping Detroit teams and trying to entertain their fellow fans.

We're talking about a person, James Van Horn, a man who was homeless and lived on the streets of Detroit. You don't learn that fact in the column. Someone with the opportunity to discuss, say, homelessness in the capacity as a columnist with allotted weekly space, took what happened as an opportunity to pen a feel-good human interest story depicting Van Horn as one of the city's Great Wacky Sports Fans. That's the viewpoint the writer covering Macomb and St. Clair counties wanted to project.

I'm not suggesting there should've been some overextended effort, a la Scott Templeton in Season 5 of The Wire. It seems like the mark was missed, though.

The outpouring of support for Van Horn and Alston was a sight to behold, especially with the effort to raise money to pay for their funerals.

But it feels like there was a missed opportunity to talk about homelessness. And that's a shame.

(The Detroit News) (photo courtesy of YouTube)