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Constable's Notebook - November 2007

Almost every day on my way home when I exit IH 35 at Airport I am greeted by one or more panhandlers with signs asking for money. A recent study conducted by the Center for Problem Oriented Policing, found that most panhandlers are unemployed males in their 30s or 40s with substance abuse problems and few family ties. Some suffer from mental illnesses but not most. Many have minor criminal records but are as likely to have been victims of crimes. Some are transient but many have been in the community for a long time. In Austin some women and veterans resort to panhandling and yet there are some who would pose as mothers and veterans. While most of us are pained by the sight of people begging for money on the streets, and our respective religions and belief systems all tell us that we should help the least amongst us, we are reluctant to give them money because we believe that it would be spent for alcohol or drugs.

The Austin City Council has scheduled a public hearing to consider an ordinance that would prohibit panhandling within 1,000 feet of public schools and daycare centers. The proposed ordinance is supported by Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo who said that “vehicles and pedestrians do not mix”. Council Member Jennifer Kim cited the 211 solicitation citations within 1,000 feet of schools as evidence of creating an unsafe environment. Opponents argue that the vast majority of panhandlers are not aggressive, do not jump into traffic, and the current ordinance prohibits people from blocking traffic. Richard Troxell, a long time Austin advocate for the homeless expressed his concern that “panhandling is a big sign that there is a disease in our community and outlawing panhandling does not attack the root causes of why people choose something so humiliating, dangerous, and frankly hardly worthwhile financially.”

Austin is far from alone in its attempts to limit panhandling. Nearly half of all U.S. cites have passed some type of limits on panhandling in particular public places. Many cities that have attempted to enact de facto bans on all solicitation (including Austin) have been rebuffed by the courts as a violation of free speech. City ordinances that more narrowly addressed panhandling by prohibiting “aggressive” panhandling such as touching, screaming, accosting, or blocking, or asking for money in a confined space have met with more success in the courts. Some cities have required panhandlers to be licensed while other cities have urged their citizens to instead donate to social service agencies dedicated to helping those who want to be helped.

It is not clear whether the proposed panhandling ordinance will pass or withstand constitutional muster. But we know that by simply outlawing the symptom of panhandling (with aggressive enforcement) city council members cannot make the underlying problem go away. Any productive discussion of regulating panhandling should also include a better understanding of why people resort to begging for money on public streets and what can be done to help.



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