Stop begging. Or, if you’re on the other side of the equation, stop handing out spare change or more.
That’s the message San Antonio Police Chief William McManus wants to send through an ordinance that will be considered by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee in November. The ordinance would make it illegal to give money to panhandlers.
“It would prohibit anyone from giving money to people on the street,” McManus said Wednesday to Committee members. “If it’s a crime to panhandle, it should be a crime to give to panhandlers … there are plenty of ways to donate besides giving on the street. That money (typically) goes to drugs and alcohol.”
The new rule would mirror the current panhandling ordinance that makes it illegal to solicit money or things of value within 50 feet of certain areas, including banks, ATMs, parking meters/pay stations, outdoor dining areas, bus stops, stop lights and intersections, and more. It’s basically illegal everywhere “the public is considered vulnerable, or where solicitation would interfere with the flow of traffic.”
Permits are available by application to gain very limited, short-term access to roadways in order to collect money for charities, McManus said after District 9 Councilman Joe Krier asked about firefighters and other groups he has seen at intersections – essentially panhandling.
“If they don’t have a permit, they’re breaking the law,” McManus said.
Each City Council member on the committee, chaired by District 3 Councilmember Rebecca Viagran, said he or she had observed panhandling firsthand or had received numerous complaints from constituents.
“It’s a supply and demand issue,” Viagran said, adding that combining this ordinance to public awareness and outreach efforts should shift the conversation back to the root of quality of life issues identified by the SAPD Strategic Plan Initiative for 2014. Those include panhandling, homelessness, prostitution, graffiti, burglary of vehicles, and open-air drug markets. According to McManus, panhandling arrests are up 34 percent this fiscal year.
Complaints have echoed throughout the Police Department, McManus said.
“People will run red lights to get away from the panhandlers,” he said. And there have been more aggressive solicitors that “spit on your windshield if you don’t give money.”
The committee, which includes District 5 Councilmember Shirley Gonzales, District 7 Councilmember Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez, District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier, and District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher, seemed unanimous in its support of such an ordinance.
“Trying to (solve problems) the other way around … going after the people that are enabling (crimes), seems like a good approach,” Gonzales said.
“It’s probably one of the best things that we can do to deal with panhandlers,” McManus said, who said he and his team have been working on the ordinance for a few months, though it’s been on his mind for years. “I haven’t researched other cities’ (ordinance efficacy) … but I believe it will work here.”
Recognizing that the root of many of these problems is mental illness, McManus said that the SAPD has been working with the District Attorney’s office and Health and Human Services departments to develop avenues for repeat offenders to either enter rehabilitation facilities voluntarily or by court order.
After three or more citations, the District Attorney has the ability to increase a “frequent flyer’s” offense from a Class C misdemeanor – essentially a $500 traffic ticket – to a Class B misdemeanor – a $2,000 fine and up to six months in jail. This way the “judge is able to commit them to forced treatment,” McManus said.
At the end of the day, however, these are not problems you can “arrest away,” he continued, updating the council on the other quality of life issues. The Strategic Plan has a full committee that convened in December 2013 that included representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, Haven for Hope, Probation Offices, and various other city and county courts.
Subcommittees have also formed and meet once a month to focus on one of the five core issues (panhandling, graffiti, prostitution, open-air drug markets, and burglary of vehicles).
Click here to download McManus’ Quality of Life Strategic Plan Update presented to the Public Safety Committee today.
*Featured/top image: San Antonio Police Chief William McManus presents and updates presentation on the SAPD Strategic Plan to the Public Safety Committee. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
This article was originally published on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014.