Austin City Council will soon consider loosening an ordinance that controls when and where people may publicly solicit in the city. The ordinance, outlined in Section 9-4-13 of the city code, is designed to prevent “aggressive” or “abusive” solicitation.
While some provisions rightly protect citizens from harassment, others make life even harder for the 7,000 homeless people in Austin, many of whom rely on solicitation. The code prevents them from soliciting at a bus station or stop, at a marked crosswalk or in the downtown business area during business hours — eliminating a large portion of the areas close to homeless shelters. City Council must alter the proposed ordinance to eliminate the disproportionate and discriminatory burden it places on the most desperate people in our community.
Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, believes that panhandlers should be respectful and nondisruptive. While citizens should always feel safe, she says, some solicitation should be protected.
Howard points out that this ordinance affects many types of vendors, arguably extending to Girl Scouts in some cases. Yet Girl Scouts have resources and social privileges that the homeless often do not.
With 45 percent of homeless people reporting mental health problems, they are both likely to break the ordinance and unlikely to realize its implications. Yet, like many city laws, the ordinance does not require a “culpable mental state” to apply.
Charging solicitors with a crime creates a vicious, self-defeating circle. A criminal record deepens a homeless person’s struggle to find an honest job that is likely already worsened by mental illness and past incarceration. When homeless people are in this position, panhandling is one of the only, yet no less degrading, sources of cash. In this sense, criminalizing panhandling makes it all the more necessary.
David Richard Carter is a transiently homeless man that many in the UT community may recognize. He is commonly seen asking students for money on the corner of the Shoe Palace or near Einstein’s on the Drag. A 65-year-old man with both physical and mental disabilities, he finds a stable job hard to come by.
“If nobody gives me anything, I don’t have anything,” he told me. “But I have a lot of friends on campus. … Nobody owes me anything, but I have been blessed.”
He relies on the $30 to $40 people may donate every day to carry him through life, but he is not content with this way of life. He says he is trying to write a book and go back to school, but has never had the financial security.
City Council’s ordinance could hurt people like Carter who have no other options than soliciting money.
Howard says that any change to this ordinance will not ultimately affect the amount of people on the streets. She says City Council would be more effective with measures of alleviation rather than prosecution, such as low-barrier rental housing and support services for jobs and health care.
City Council was originally set to decide the future of this ordinance on Thursday, June 28, but postponed for an ongoing public comment period, so now is the perfect opportunity to call for City Council to take a more sympathetic approach to this problem. While some elements of this ordinance are necessary to maintain public safety, others disproportionately target the homeless and mentally ill. Austin ought to raise the threshold at which it charges homeless people with crimes and account for mental incompetence in assessing charges. Just like the homeless people in our community when their city provides them no better option, we need to ask for change.
Chandler is a journalism and government sophomore from Houston.