“Homeless. Hungry. Anything helps. Thank you.”
The message, written on a worn piece of cardboard, is simple. But for the person holding it, a bearded, tired-looking man in his 60s, it’s survival.
“I don’t have any other options,” he said.
The man, who asked not to be named, says he's lived and worked in San Antonio for more than a decade. Three years ago, he said, the police confiscated his ID, which made it impossible to apply for a job, food stamps, Medicaid, or any other social service aid. To make ends meet, he started standing at an intersection with his sign — but he’s not proud of it.
“It’s not what I want to be doing at all. I wish I had a job,” he said. “But don’t know what else I can do.”
San Antonio city council member Mike Gallagher, however, believes this kind of panhandling is a career choice.
Last Wednesday, Gallagher pushed a proposal past the city’s Governance Committee to have the San Antonio Police Department explore more ways to crack down on what he calls “professional panhandling.” According to Gallagher, people in San Antonio ask passersby for spare change as a profession, not because they may be living in extreme poverty.
“I’ve heard that people are even being dropped off in vans in the morning to panhandle, and then are being picked up again at night,” Gallagher said. “The scenario really scares me.”
Gallagher has no actual evidence backing this idea of professional panhandling — only anecdotal evidence from business owners and other members of the public. He said the police have witnessed these alleged van drop-offs, but when we contacted SAPD, a spokesperson wouldn't comment.
It’s unclear whether Gallagher has ever interacted with a panhandler. When prodded on his own experiences with homeless people, he told us about phone calls he’s received from his constituents about “aggressive” and “threatening” people.
“I really wish he did his homework before bringing something like this in front of the council,” said Joan Cheever, founder of the local free food truck for the hungry, Chow Train. “You need to be very careful ...especially when you’re trying to criminalize poverty.”
Cheever, along with other homeless advocates, sees Gallagher’s move as purely political—and sloppy.
“If the city council bans holding signs on street corners, they are saying freedom of speech is illegal. Then they are going to have trouble with the justice department,” she said.
This ban would also conflict with city laws already in place. Earlier this year, the city lifted a ban on street musicians. With a cardboard sign and a bucket for donations, there seems to be only one thing separating them from the homeless.
“Maybe we should start handing out instruments to everyone in need, so they won’t be arrested,” joked Cheever. With a background in law, Cheever is constantly asked for legal guidance from Chow Train regulars who’ve received panhandling tickets.
Cheever added that Gallagher’s ask is largely redundant—the city council criminalized panhandling in most public areas five years ago. So what would be new this time around?
“Part of it is an enforcement issue,” Gallagher said. “But the current ordinance doesn’t have enough teeth.”
The 2011 law, which was also created to weed out “professional panhandlers,” makes panhandling within 50 feet of ATMs, banks, parking garages, parking meters, bus stops, crosswalks, and outdoor dining areas a class C misdemeanor. Violators are fined. Gallagher aims to tack jail time onto a new, updated ordinance.
Not everyone on the city council is sold on Gallagher’s motive. At Wednesday’s meeting, Ron Nirenberg was the sole council member who voted against Gallagher's request to revamp SAPD's crackdown on "professional panhandling."
“We need to push for solutions to poverty, not just push its victims out of sight,” Nirenberg said. “It’s embarrassing for a 21st century city that cares for its citizens to have people standing on corners asking for money. We can do better.”
Law enforcement should help connect panhandlers with aid, whether that’s mental health care, employment assistance, or housing help, he added.
“But we haven’t connected law enforcement with the right resources to address the problem,” Nirenberg said.
Gallagher didn’t say if his new plan would include training police officers to connect panhandlers with social services. But it’s “without question” that civic organizations and churches should be responsible for helping the city make these connections.
Perhaps he forgot: The city effectively excluded church-based homeless resources from its 10-year homelessness plan in 2005, forcing many churches to shutter needed programs. Police fined volunteers handing out free clothing and food to the homeless. And just last year, the city famously fined Cheever $2,000 for feeding the homeless in Maverick Park. The city may have missed its window to solicit community help—and burned a few bridges on the way.
Cheever said that Haven for Hope, the city’s main homeless resource, is far too small to help the city’s growing homeless population. Instead of putting taxpayers money toward policing, she said, the council needs to expand resources that keep people from needing to panhandle in the first place.
“The city believed that if it builds one shelter, they will come. It’s not that easy,” she said. “We need diners for the homeless all over town, we need housing options, we need to allow churches to do what they've always done.”
Until then, she said, the city’s in dangerous waters.
“The council needs to tread very carefully. The whole country is watching San Antonio.”