OKLAHOMA CITY – James Hassan was selling the Curbside Chronicle. Then he went to jail.
On August 10, Hassan – who was homeless – was caught panhandling by the Oklahoma City police and given a ticket. After that, Hassan stopped panhandling and began selling The Curbside Chronicle, a magazine sponsored by the Homeless Alliance.

A project of the alliance, The Curbside Chronicle allows homeless and at-risk residents to work as vendors for the publication. The job offers a way for many to earn income, transition back into housing and develop time, money-management and social skills necessary to transition into more traditional employment.
Homeless Alliance officials said the program was launched to help reduce panhandling. The Chronicle was modeled after a street paper in Nashville, Tenn., where panhandling was significantly reduced. In 2015, Oklahoma City's Curbside Chronicle received a $40,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence In Journalism Foundation.

For Hassan, his gig selling the Chronicle is a world away from standing on the corner holding a cardboard sign. “I stopped panhandling. I wanted a real job,” he said. “That’s why I’m selling the Chronicle.”
But just two weeks into that new job, while he stood at the intersection of Northwest 39th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue selling magazines, Hassan was ticketed a second time. The officer who arrested him, Hassan said, told him there was no difference between selling the Chronicle and panhandling.
This time, Hassan was taken to jail.

Across Oklahoma City, vendors of The Curbside Chronicle face tickets and the possibility of arrest. Advocates for the homeless say the number of tickets and arrests have increased since the Oklahoma City Council began to debate a new, stronger anti-panhandling ordinance. That ordinance, proposed by Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer, would prevent persons from standing, sitting or staying on the “portions of any street or highway improved and open for vehicular traffic or any median for any purpose.”

“It wasn't until preliminary talks of this proposed ordinance started happening that our vendors began getting tickets and sent to jail for soliciting in the street,” said Ranya O’Connor, the Chronicle's editor. “For the first two years of our existence, we only know of one ticket being issued to a vendor for soliciting in the street. Since talks of this ordinance began circulating in August of 2015, we've had at least six tickets issued to vendors and two go to jail.”

Oklahoma City Police spokesman Capt. Paco Balderrama said officers weren't targeting the Chronicle's vendors. "I haven't seen numbers so I couldn't comment on most of those arrests," he said. But police, Balderrama said, wouldn't enforce an ordinance that hadn't gone into effect.

"More than likely it was an arrest for another problem," he said.

A copy of Hassan's ticket lists soliciting as the reason for his arrest. Balderrama said the ticket was improperly coded.

"The arrest was a good arrest," Balderrama said. "I reviewed the police report. He was actually arrested for stepping into the street, not soliciting. The ticket was coded wrong."

Marcos Powell, another Chronicle vendor, said he, too, was arrested and jailed for selling the magazine. Like Hassan, Powell was cited twice for panhandling. Both times, Powell said, he was selling the magazine. “I was the first vendor to sell the Chronicle,” he said. “I’ve been there since the beginning in 2013. Everything was fine then. Now, suddenly, it’s illegal? That’s wrong.”

Balderrama said Powell was also ticketed and arrested for stepping into the street. Salyer said debate about the issue has "gotten off track." In an interview with KFOR television, she said the city has placed a priority on safety.

“We define a median as a traffic control device that separates lanes of traffic going in opposite directions from one another," Salyer told the television station. "It is not and never was conceived as a place for people to gather. The deeper we got into [the law] as a staff really made it clear that this isn’t about panhandling. This is about safety and it’s not just about the safety of the people in the medians. It’s about the safety of the vehicular drivers.”

Salyer told the television station that the ordinance was similar to the state’s new texting and driving ban and was "one of many new laws to make the roads safer."

However, officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma disagree. On Oct. 1, ACLU Oklahoma sent a letter to the each member of the Oklahoma City Council, urging the council to change or kill the ordinance.

“We understand city officials have a duty to keep the public safe,” said Brady Henderson, legal director for ACLU of Oklahoma. “But this ordinance isn’t the way to do it. It’s far too broad. Stomping on the First Amendment and restraining media and news professionals from doing their job isn’t going to make the public safer.”

Henderson said the ordinance was written so broadly that it would prevent media professionals from doing their jobs and eliminate public service activities such as the Fill the Boot Campaign — a fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of ACLU of Oklahoma, said the ordinance discriminated against the poor.“It adds to the growing problem of criminalizing and punishing poverty within Oklahoma City,” he said.
Like Salyer, Oklahoma City Municipal Counselor Ken Jordan said the ordinance was designed as a traffic safety measure. In a response letter to ACLU Oklahoma, Jordan said the ordinance was "not an attempt at criminalizing and punishing poverty."

"It (the proposed ordinance) is an attempt to keep people off of traffic control devices for their safety and the safety of others," he wrote. City officials, Jordan wrote, believe the ordinance is constitutional. "Nevertheless, we are more than willing to consider any possible changes to the ordinance you would like to advance," he said.
The ACLU isn't the only group to express concern over the proposed ordinance.

On Oct. 2, the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists voted to oppose the ordinance. Media professionals, SPJ President Michael Cross said in a letter to city officials, would be prohibited from covering breaking news that occurred on a road or highway.
"Prohibiting a media representative from being in a median or on a roadway to cover a breaking event would act as a prior restraint on that media outlet and prevent them from informing the public," Cross said.
Since that action, the Oklahoma City Council has backed away from adopting the ordinance. On Oct. 9, Salyer delayed the vote on the ordinance until December, saying she wanted time to gather more information and data about traffic safety and panhandling in Oklahoma City.

Kiesel, the ACLU's executive director, praised the council's decision.

"I'm pleased they've postponed a vote on this proposal," he said. "Councilwoman Salyer is correct. The city needs more data and statistics. I'm hopeful that once they've had a chance to review the numbers, the city will take a different approach to the problem of homelessness."

Still, for magazine vendors such as Hassan, selling the Curbside Chronicle remains a life changing job. "I have a job. I have some money and I'm getting an apartment," he said. "Selling the Curbside Chronicle has helped me change my life."