Homeless and Panhandling Laws
There are no state laws in New Hampshire that specifically restrict the rights or activities of homeless people. However, some towns and cities have passed local ordinances that attempt to regulate where homeless people go and what they do.
These local laws can’t violate state and federal protections for homeless people.
NH state laws and policies
The state has a handful of protections for homeless persons. These include providing funding for shelter and services for homeless individuals. For example, the state has a financial assistance program for residents facing foreclosure, funds emergency shelters, and provides supportive services for homeless individuals with a disability.
If you are interested in services for the homeless in New Hampshire, visit the New Hampshire Bureau of Homeless and Housing Services.
- Homeless children and youth have a right to the same public education as all children, even if they cannot provide the documents a school usually requires for enrollment.
- Homeless residents also have the right to vote in elections, although New Hampshire’s voter ID law significantly complicates the process for homeless residents without a driver’s license or other ID.
Federal law and panhandling or begging
Federal courts have ruled that bans on panhandling in public places are a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.
For example, in September 2017 a federal judge struck down a Manchester ordinance that prohibited people from giving or taking things from the driver or passenger of a motor vehicle while that vehicle was in a roadway—an ordinance that was intended to stop panhandling along Manchester streets.
The federal judge ruled the ordinance violated the right to free speech because it was too broad and, as written, would impact people handing out leaflets, not just those accepting money. It also made no allowance for panhandlers who stay off the road and do not disrupt traffic.
This court ruling applied to similar anti-panhandling ordinances in Concord, Somersworth, and Rochester.
Current restrictions on the homeless in NH cities and towns
Since state law does not restrict the activities of homeless people, some New Hampshire towns have tried to pass their own local rules addressing vagrancy.
Since town ordinances that specifically restrict panhandling or begging fall afoul of First Amendment free speech protections, these local rules will often apply to other activities of homeless persons.
- Towns and cities may use ordinances that generally prohibit loitering, public intoxication, and trespassing to force panhandlers and/or homeless people to move out of an area, ideally to a shelter or other social service agency. Even police enforcement of motor vehicle laws, such as the prohibition on stopping at a green light, can be targeted to discourage giving money to panhandlers.
- Some cities—such as Lebanon, New Hampshire—have a ban on camping on city property or sleeping in public.
- Cities and towns may have zoning laws that restrict the location of homeless shelters. Those restrictions usually aim to preserve the residential character of a neighborhood or insulate nearby businesses from homeless individuals, but on the positive side, the restrictions could also ensure that there is adequate public transportation and sanitation for sheltered individuals.
Other policy approaches to homelessness
Homeless Bill of Rights laws
Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Illinois each have a Homeless Bill of Rights in state law. Such laws guarantee the right of homeless citizens to use public spaces in the same manner as other residents. They also prohibit state agencies and employers from discriminating against a homeless person solely because that person does not have a permanent address. A Homeless Bill of Rights can deter municipalities from passing laws against loitering, public camping, or panhandling. However, some argue that Homeless Bill of Rights laws are not very effective, because they do not do anything to decrease homelessness, such as fund permanent housing projects.
Homeless hate crime laws
Other states, such as Maine, allow a crime against a homeless person to be prosecuted as a hate crime. This would allow prosecutors and judges to levy harsher punishments for violence against homeless people.
Some cities have homeless courts. Similar to mental health courts, drug courts, and veterans courts, homeless courts allow homeless individuals charged with a crime to avoid a conviction if they complete a program of treatment and services.
New Hampshire does not have a Homeless Bill of Rights or homeless courts, nor does the state include homelessness in hate crime laws.
“Local laws restricting vagrancy increase safety and can help citizens connect with social services.”
- Laws that address vagrancy may help police shut down panhandlers collecting money for drugs.
- Laws against loitering, trespassing, and camping on public property all give law enforcement leverage to move homeless people to safer situations and connect them with social services.
- Aggressive panhandlers and homeless people lingering around private property may create a hostile environment for businesses and residents. It is fair for cities and towns to pass laws that protect a peaceful and clean environment.
“Local laws restricting vagrancy and panhandling violate the rights of homeless citizens and do nothing to decrease homelessness.”
- Laws that restrict panhandling and access to public property violate the rights of all citizens, such as the constitutional right to free speech in public spaces, and are likely to be overturned in court.
- Laws that criminalize vagrancy make it harder for homeless people to find housing and employment, since those laws create a criminal record. As a result, the laws make the problem of homelessness even worse.
- Laws against vagrancy do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness in New Hampshire, such as the shortage of affordable rental properties. Rather than spend money on enforcing anti-vagrancy laws, cities and towns should spend money on outreach and services for homeless residents.