Point Austin: Some Spare Change on Panhandling

Can Austin find ways to meet the real need?

Point Austin
Over the years, I've given and not given to panhandlers.

It depends on many things: whether I've got anything to give, if I'm in a hurry or a generous mood, if the panhandler is polite and appears genuinely needy, if I smell a scam, the general circumstances (e.g., day or night), how many times I've been hit up that day, and so on. I've never had a "policy" on the matter, and I suspect many people behave the same way – trying to be charitable, while trying not to encourage fecklessness or just be a sucker.

But in an increasingly big city and a sinking economy, panhandling has become a persistent and vexing question, and it's about to make its not infrequent return to City Hall. As we report elsewhere in this issue (see "The Latest Proposal"), the Down­town Austin Alliance is recruiting support for strengthening of the anti-solicitation ordinance (proposed in coordination with a Responsible Giving campaign). It's likely that an amendment to extend the current nighttime ban in central Downtown (I-35 to San Antonio Street and Cesar Chavez to 11th Street) to 24 hours will reach City Council in the next couple of months. Advocates are lining up on both sides, and the eventual outcome remains in doubt.

The difference this time is that the DAA and its business alliance is being joined by the major social service agencies serving the homeless, and even by the Downtown churches that devote considerable financial and personal resources to feeding and helping the chronically needy. Institutional providers have long counseled against direct donations to panhandlers, on the pragmatic grounds that you can't actually know whether your gift is helping or hurting – they advise instead volunteering or donating directly to service agencies. As Helen Varty, executive director of Front Steps (which manages the ARCH and serves many clients with mental-health or substance-abuse problems), bluntly puts it: "We don't feel it's in the best interests of the clients that we represent for them to be panhandling or for people to be giving to them. ... In a very dramatic sense, you could be giving somebody money for their last drink or drug, if it's the one that kills them."

Varty describes the broader support for tightening restrictions as indeed reflecting a "sea change," and she credits meetings sponsored by the DAA and Coun­cil Member Sheryl Cole as bringing together all the stakeholders and allowing the conversation to move away from "just pounding on the home­less." She says that there's a new willingness among providers to acknowledge the predicament of "entertainment district" businesses, and business owners are realizing the desperate need for more affordable housing. "I think ultimately that the Downtown community," she adds, "both businesses and residences, are going to have to contribute to the solution, if there's ever going to be a solution."

Not Unanimous

That's not to say everyone agrees on the need for a new ordinance, nor even that enacting more restrictions will have much tangible effect on broader Downtown concerns. Richard Troxell of House the Homeless calls it a "rush to judgment" and is working on a formal response. He has argued forcefully that such ordinances amount to "outlawing poverty," sidestep the much greater need for livable-wage jobs, and more simply, attempt to deprive the homeless of "the right to solicit their fellow human beings for help." For similar civil rights reasons – arguably, a request for money is protected free speech – the ACLU's Debbie Russell has written to the supporting organizations appealing to the providers instead "to continue fighting for long-term, sustainable solutions that don't punish those seeking services."

Varty, Cole, and others would likely respond that that's exactly what they're doing. Cole says the city can't expect Downtown support for permanent housing solutions if the city ignores the tangible needs of the neighborhood, and Varty (pointing to San Antonio's Riverwalk) says it's not unreasonable for a city to designate an "entertainment district" where people can expect to be free of constant solicitation. "I think the entertainment district, they can [limit] it," Varty says, "but if they go beyond that, they're going to have a hard time getting broader support."

What Then?

Even those who support amending the ordinance readily acknowledge that "the homeless" are not Downtown's worst problem – drunken fights, assaults, and even the occasional shooting among folks otherwise "housed" head that list – and say that limits on panhandling at best can ameliorate public nuisances and make visitors routinely feel more comfortable. The bigger and more troubling question is whether the expressed support for "comprehensive solutions" – that is, truly affordable housing and corollary services for the needy – will be translated into tangible public and private resources for already overstretched agencies. In Austin as in Texas generally, the conventional response is to fund law enforcement – making the police both first responders and last resort – and leave the rest to charity.

"There's not a lack of solutions," says Varty, pointing particularly to the national Housing First movement – moving people into subsidized basic housing before expecting them to address other responsibilities – that is producing tangible results in other cities. "We need to start planning, and we need to find the resources to do it," Varty says, "down to how's it going to get paid for." Cole adds that while she supports giving the Downtown neighborhood the tools to address a visible burden it endures disproportionately to the rest of the community, she also believes that it's past time for private interests to step up to the plate to address the city's broader responsibilities. "Austin is overdue in its commitment from the private sector," Cole declared, "for so many of our needs."

So that's where we stand – too early to know what the proposed ordinance will look like, and much more importantly, not at all certain whether the resources for truly broad, effective, and humane solutions to the homelessness problem in Austin will ever materialize. I wish I could offer more confidence in the response.

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panhandling ordinance, homelessness, panhandling, Downtown Austin Alliance, Helen Varty, Sheryl Cole, Richard Troxell, Debbie Russell, Front Steps, House the Homeless, ACLU

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