Beside the Point

Throw the Bums Out!

When they first emerged a month ago, new City Council proposals to tighten restrictions on panhandling were decried by homeless advocates as mean-spirited and detrimental to those affected. They were right; it wasn't long before the trial balloons claimed their first victims: sponsors Jennifer Kim and Brewster McCracken.

This week, they're back – kind of. Acknowledging the backlash, Kim asked for a presentation on current solicitation rules (and, presumably, their shortcomings); today (Thursday) at 2pm, Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald and Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo oblige. Council's expected to schedule public hearings on specific measures – e.g., criminalizing roadside solicitation (i.e., on the side of the highway) and implementing a 1,000-foot buffer around schools.

Kim says the issue is safety – that there have been six deaths of solicitors hit in traffic. "It is not right for us to encourage people to ask for contributions from the roadways," Kim says. While in favor of increasing homeless outreach, she says the danger of roadside begging outweighs the benefit. "We are compassionate, but it's not compassionate to expect people to ask for a handout from people who are in moving motor vehicles." Under state law, solicitation on state roads – highways, interstates, and the like – is illegal, but in a narrow sense: It's illegal to stand on the road itself but not a sidewalk or shoulder. "They have to see you on the pavement [for it] to be a violation," says Kim, "making it very impractical for the police to enforce." The council has previously enacted roadside prohibitions for the Central Business District (Downtown to the Drag) and two other areas popular for day labor, but Kim says, "The problem is it's happening on Barton Springs, on Lamar – we're starting to see it in our neighborhoods." (Won't somebody think of the neighborhoods?)

"Whether people agree [with current solicitation rules]," McCrack­en says, "we should at least be enforcing the laws we have." McCracken describes "a great deal of internal confusion" among police as to whether a witness must report a solicitation incident for it to be actionable. Although officers currently have discretion to enforce the prohibition as necessary, McCracken maintains that weak or inconsistent enforcement makes the 2005 prohibitions "kinda meaningless."

Current ordinances do prohibit solicitation directly around schools, but McCracken says outcry from Travis High School parents has moved him to revisit the issue. (Never mind that traffic whizzing off I-35 on to Oltorf past Travis High School, and the narrow sidewalks along the crowded arterial, are imminent dangers – there are boogeymen of questionable hygiene out there!) Last month, McCracken evoked groans when he said there is no free-speech right to approach children – an opinion he might want to share with the Girl Scouts' next cookie drive – but he remains undeterred. "I don't think it's a safe situation for strangers to walk up to your car or your kids. Whatever law we have should be enforceable."

Before setting a public hearing – or proposing new ordinances – McCrack­en wants more information. Council-watchers should focus on whether the proposals are limited to schools and roads or generalized in to a blanket ban. McCracken wouldn't close the door on that possibility, saying the city "needs to get clarity" on enforcement that "would apply to all laws and restrictions on panhandling." But council, can you spare a majority?

In a related vein, will retiring City Manager Toby Futrell be rendered homeless sooner than we thought? Corporate headhunters at Arcus Public, recently contracted to find city manager candidates, are conducting interviews with council members to define the parameters – after that, it should be a rapid road to replacement. According to McCracken, Arcus believes it will have finalists in November. He told BTP, "We'd be prepared to make an offer in December, or January at the latest. We heard that consistently from all firms we interviewed."

Will that turnaround make it tougher for Futrell to stick it out until her previously announced departure in late May?

Reach BTP at wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, Jennifer Kim, Brewster McCracken, homelessness, solicitation, police, Toby Futrell, City Manager

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