San Antonio officials are launching a new program to fight back against the increasingly annoying and dangerous panhandlers who populate intersections, but Police Chief William McManus says the program will not include arresting people for panhandling, unless they become aggressive or panhandle at places where it is prohibited, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.
"Arresting someone for a Class C misdemeanor who is homeless is basically a waste of time," McManus said. "A waste of the officer's time."
So, from a police perspective, the City is using trespassing laws to deal with panhandlers who are, for example, impeding traffic into a business. He says trespassing arrests are up this year, while panhandling arrests are down, reflecting the shift in priorities.
For example, under a new law, a business owner can sign a statement allowing police to remove a panhandler from the business property without having to specifically call in every single incident.
The Police Department's IMPACT program is also approaching homeless people and panhandlers, with a goal of getting them to take advantage of detox programs, mental health programs, and homeless facilities like the Haven for Hope and the SAMM Shelter. McManus says the police also have the authority to conduct 'emergency detentions' of people who are aggressively panhandling, or who clearly exhibit signs of mental illness.
And one area where the police department is taking steps, McManus said, is in making sure homeless people have some type of identification. Many don't, and, as he put it, without an ID you can't do anything.
City Human Services Director Melody Woosley says the city has identified seven 'high activity areas' where the homeless congregate. They include along Loop 410 between Austin Highway and Perrin-Beitel, At I-10 and DeZavala, near Brooks, and on the northwest side near Ingram Park Mall.
She says 24 'coordinated events' will be staged at those locations this year, where the area will be cleaned up, personal property moved away, and the vagrants moved to other locations.
"We are focused on seven very high activity areas," she said. "Our goal is to proactively schedule two events every month," she said.
The city will not arrest the homeless peopel at those locations, but will put them in vehicles and take them to shelters and other loctations.
Woosley and McManus said the city is being very careful in its approach, because courts have repeatedly ruled that being homeless is not against the law, and has struck down laws that criminalize homelessness. A federal judge just this week shot down a Houston law that prohibited camping on city property.
Woosley says one key part of the city's effort will be what she calls an 'alternative giving campaign.' That is, essentially, convincing motorists not to give money to panhandlers.
"To encourage the community not to give dollars to panhandlers," she said. "Most of the time it is spent on narcotics or drugs or alcohol."