Cars pass Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, remains hopeful one will stop at a green light and help him out. He says about 35 out of 100 do. Photo by Scott Ball.
Cars pass Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, who remains hopeful one will stop at a green light and help him out. He says about 35 out of 100 do. Photo by Scott Ball.

I’ve always been uncomfortably ambivalent about panhandlers, giving to some, not giving to others. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus sparked a robust public conversation when he asked City Council to make it illegal to give food or money to panhandlers on city streets.

(Read More: SAPD to Propose Anti-Panhandling Ordinance)

The subject has drawn passionate comments from people on both sides of the issue, some asserting their right to give, and others praising the Chief and urging him to clean up the streets. The City’s Public Safety Committee is scheduled to consider the matter again Wednesday.

I am caught with a foot in each camp. That seems inconsistent on the surface, but let me add some context.

There are far fewer street people and panhandlers in downtown San Antonio than there were in the days before the Haven for Hope opened its doors on the near-Westside. The Haven for Hope might be the most under-appreciated social asset in the city.

The H4H can’t perform social miracles. It can’t force mentally ill and drug addicted people into its programs. It isn’t a jail or repository for street people. The police can’t arrest every person who asks for spare change. So street people, to some degree, are part of the urban fabric, and as people in need, they are going to ask for handouts.

I think McManus is right in recognizing a problem, wrong with his solution. Most of the panhandlers are, indeed, looking for money to score dope, feed their alcoholism, or maybe hit a fast food outlet. They’d be far better served entering a program where they clean up, eat a nutritious meal and begin the process of getting back on their feet. That’s aspirational, not always realistic.

I give a handout when I think the person asking will use it well. That includes people looking for bus money (I ask their VIA route number and where they are going), women with children, and actually, just about any sober woman, period. I also give to men, except when they smell of alcohol or seem stoned. That rules out most men.

I’m acting as judge and jury, but I do the same thing in deciding where to make charitable contributions and where not to make them. What I am not doing is vilifying the panhandlers. They aren’t criminals unless they’re snatching purses or intimidating people. I’m not a bad guy for giving, or for not giving.

Earl, an Armed Forces veteran has been panhandling for more than 15 years. " I can't get a job, the only jobs available are manual labor.  I'm too old to work manual labor, I just can't function in this society." he said. Photo by Scott Ball.
Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, has been panhandling for more than 15 years. ” I can’t get a job, the only jobs available are manual labor. I’m too old to work manual labor, I just can’t function in this society,” he said. Photo by Scott Ball.

Police need a tool to control panhandling, and the ordinance making it illegal gives them that tool. I wouldn’t mind if City Council made it an even bigger problem to panhandle in traffic because I think there is a real safety issue there. I don’t give to firefighters holding out a boot, either, because I don’t think moving vehicles and people asking for handouts are a good mix.

Perhaps if police would pick up panhandlers in traffic and take them to a shelter it would improve things. Some might actually accept professional help, while others might be so inconvenienced they would tire of the cat and mouse game with police.

What is lost in this conversation about ordinances and offenses and penalties and policing is this: Charity should be part of our urban culture.

I know that there are people posing to win sympathy. For every con man, however, there are many more people who are hurting. It only takes one visit to the St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room to be reminded.

McManus’ proposed ordinance takes away an individual’s ability to commit a random act of kindness.  We certainly need laws to govern us. By the same token, we see every day that we can’t legislate away our problems. Can City Council craft a sensible compromise ordinance that reduces panhandling as a nuisance or public danger, yet recognizes the right of people to help others on an individual basis? It’s not an easy thing.

There are thousands of non-profit groups and organizations working every day in our city to make the world a better place. They are the best recipients of our charitable giving. The human condition, however, will continue to confront us on downtown streets. Most of us will struggle to act in accordance with our beliefs. I’m not sure another ordinance will make that job any easier.

*Featured/top image: Cars pass Earl, an Armed Forces veteran, who remains hopeful one will stop at a green light and help him out. He says about 35 out of 100 cars will give him money. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.