City officials discussed the issue of panhandling Tuesday, after Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) submitted a Council Consideration Request (CCR) to review the current panhandling ordinance and find ways to strengthen it. Both Gallagher and City Manager Sheryl Sculley confirmed that there has been an increase in individuals asking for money on streets and at intersections, which has prompted many concerned phone calls to their offices.
The current panhandling ordinance states that it is illegal to solicit “in an aggressive manner in a public area,” or within 50 feet of areas such as ATMs, banks, a parking meter or pay station, marked crosswalks, bus stops or bus stations, and more.
Gallagher told the Rivard Report during a Tuesday phone interview that constant and recent feedback from constituents and small businesses made him decide to take on the panhandling issue. According to Gallagher and Councilman Joe Krier (D9), citizens are concerned about public safety and want to see something done about it.
“It’s all about safety,” Gallagher said. “I’ve heard about it all over town. Panhandlers will jump out in front of cars or people at major intersections, or they’ll also come up to people who are coming out of a store, and this is costing businesses. Fellow Council members are having the same problems.”
Gallagher said he has heard of vans that go out early in the day, drop off individuals who panhandle at major intersections, and then pick them back up in the afternoon. In addition, human trafficking organizations are forcing people to be panhandlers, Gallagher said, and he wants to investigate this issue as well. He suggested the issue be taken up by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
“How do (we) fit the needs of those people that are disabled or unemployed, as opposed to the ‘professionals’ just doing it to make a living? That’s got to somehow be looked at and defined,” Gallagher said. “That’s why I want the City to look at other cities to see which others are having success, (and that way) we can institute some kind of change.”
Krier said that in order to really solve the panhandling problem, there must be a deep understanding of the root cause of the issue. He believes that homelessness and mental illness are core factors.
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) voiced concerns about the City spending money on telling people who they should or shouldn’t give money to. Nirenberg thinks it would only move the issue around, instead of addressing the cure. Nirenberg believes money should rather be spent on addressing the cause of panhandling in order to really reduce the issue.
“We need to ask ourselves why this is occurring,” Nirenberg said. “This leads us to uncomfortable places but we need to ask that question. As a city, and as individuals, we also need to steer money to organizations that do charitable work instead of giving money to a person on the street.”
Police Chief William McManus presented a multi-faceted approach in addressing the rise of panhandling in San Antonio.
Back in September 2014, McManus proposed an anti-panhandling ordinance, which would make it illegal to give money to people on the street. A month later, McManus said it would be difficult to enforce, so he shifted focus to an awareness campaign, directing citizens to donate to organizations that help those in need instead of giving money to individuals on the street.
The proposed strategy he presented Wednesday reaffirmed his focus on public awareness and discouraging street donations. McManus said it’s also important to increase the availability of resources for the homeless and encourage business owners to enforce “No Trespassing” policies. He also wants to look at ways to identify, categorize, and treat at-risk individuals and look at possibilities for a service penalty for repeat offenders.
“San Antonio is known to be a compassionate city so we should do the right thing and look at different strategies,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3). “I’d also ask that we move it forward to the Economic and Human Services Committee. The incorporation of the Department of Human Services will bring a balance.”
Gallagher’s request will go for review to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which will then move it forward to the City’s Economic and Human Development Committee, per Viagran’s suggestion.
“I’m very pleased that this initiative is moving forward,” Gallagher said. “It’s all about the safety of our citizens … and we need to take a holistic approach to address all aspects and consequences of panhandling. I appreciate the work Chief McManus has done to research multiple ways to address this problem and the thoughtful commentary provided at today’s Governance Committee. I look forward to our next briefing on this item in both the Criminal Justice and Economic and Human Development committees.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not clearly elaborate on Councilman Nirenberg’s concern regarding Councilman Gallagher’s CCR on panhandling and its focus on discouraging street donations.
Top image: Cars pass Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, who hopes that people will stop at a green light and help him out. He says about 35 out of 100 do. Photo by Scott Ball.