Nobody is super psyched about panhandling. People who ask for money don’t really seem to enjoy resorting to an activity that leads others to treat them like they’re basically undeserving of respect or dignity. People who are hit up for change are just trying to get down the block and don’t want to deal with an unpleasant encounter. Panhandling crowds sidewalks and creates safety hazards at stoplights and crosswalks.
San Antonio dislikes panhandling so much that it’s already illegal there, after a 2011 ordinance banned asking for money near “ATMs, banks, parking garages, charitable contribution meters, parking meters/pay stations, bus stops, outdoor dining areas, and marked crosswalks.” But outlawing panhandling just means that only outlaws will panhandle—so San Antonio Police Chief William McManus wants to go to the next level: He wants to outlaw giving to panhandlers.
“If it’s a crime to panhandle, it should be a crime to give to panhandlers as well,” McManus told the committee.
McManus said aggressive panhandlers sometimes spit on windshields or cause drivers to run red lights. He said there’s no way for the department to “arrest its way out of” the problem but he wants to deter people from giving. Once the money dries up, he said, panhandlers will leave the street corners.
It’s hard to understand exactly how telling Americans who they’re allowed to give a dollar to and who they’re not would survive a legal challenge, but there’s also something inherently unkind about the idea of criminalizing basic human compassion. It’s not a good look for law enforcement to threaten people with a ticket if they see something in a stranger’s face that moves them to sympathize with their plight and offer some momentary assistance, even if there is some heretofore undiscovered legal precedent for restricting the right to give someone a dollar on the street.
That’s led to some pushback from people who are responding not just to the constitutional question, but also to the unkindness of the proposal. Criminal justice blog Grits For Breakfast reminded San Antonio city councilmembers of scripture; Nate Schlueter of Austin’s Mobile Loaves and Fishes said that “if San Antonio does this ordinance they’ll essentially become the cruelest city in America”; and a petition on Change.org currently has several hundred signatures, all urging similar sentiments.
MySA.com, meanwhile, reports that the ordinance is expected to criminalize not just giving money to people in places where panhandling is illegal, but giving food to them, too.