Panhandlers face heightened scrutiny in Arlington

City government and police have increased their scrutiny of panhandlers hanging out at Arlington's intersections

  • A sign used for panhandling sits littered at the intersection of Interstate 20 and Cooper Street
    A sign used for panhandling sits littered at the intersection of Interstate 20 and Cooper Street (Photo by Zack Maxwell / Arlington Voice)
David Dunn

Bill doesn’t see himself as a criminal. To him, he’s just like any other normal American living in Arlington. The only difference is that most residents get their money from their jobs, while Bill gets his on the side of the road.

A victim of identity theft and an injury as a former iron worker, Bill had been panhandling, or soliciting money off of the side of roads, for more than nine years. From Houston all the way to Michigan, Bill said he’s experienced how different cities respond to panhandlers like himself. He said he’s been in Arlington for more than five months, and he’s already been given the full run-down by the Arlington Police Department’s outreach coordinator.

“She tells them where the shelters are and tries to get them hooked up with food stamps,” Bill, who would not provide his real name, said. “I don’t want no food stamps or some 12-step program; I’m not addicted to anything.”

Bill said he’s seen many reasons for why people panhandle. Some do it to compensate for desperate situations, while others use it to purchase drugs. Bill panhandles just to maintain a living.

“This money keeps me off of the street,” he said. “I pay for a weekly motel, it feeds me. I don’t make thousands, I make modest money.”

Last November, the Arlington Voice published an exposé on panhandling and the City’s response to these concerns. After publishing, the police department recorded a total of 41 arrests and 65 citations issued for 2016. As of October this year, those stats include 39 arrests and 61 citations for 2017.

However, as Lieutenant Christopher Cook observes, these arrests and citations are not from panhandling directly, but rather of other violations associated with the action of panhandling.

Cook said these provisions mainly stem from Sections 1.16 and 15.02 in the Streets and Sidewalks ordinance, which mainly prohibit a person from stepping into the street at a traffic-controlled intersection or soliciting within 15 feet of the entrance or exit to a bank or business without the owner’s permission. The sections also prohibit solicitation in an aggressive manner, which is defined as either touching a person or blocking the person’s pathway.

“What we find is that some of the people we have come into contact with do not enter the roadway and only solicit from the grassy median,” Cook said. “Under those circumstances, a person may lawfully solicit from the curb or median and there is no enforcement action that we can take.”

District 2 Council Member Sheri Capehart led a town hall in February on public complaints regarding panhandling. Capehart vocalized her support for Arlington Police’s initiatives on panhandling, as well as elaborating on alternative solutions for those in needy situations.

“Arlington is a very compassionate community, and we have multiple non-profits in our community to assess people who have needs,” she said. “Panhandling, for those who truly are needy, we have resources for them, and we can refer them and get them the help they need.”

However, Capehart criticized aggressive panhandlers, saying that their goal is not to merely get by, but to make a profit. Capehart said she’s seen estimates that claim a panhandler can make upwards of $250 in two-to-four hours.

“I give to the non-profits who support people with legitimate needs,” Capehart said. “But I’m not going to give money to people who stand in a corner that may or may not be truly needy.”

Cook said officers will make contact with panhandlers upon the complaint calls they receive and will remind panhandlers of city ordinance if they do not observe a violation. Since implementing their enforcement and outreach strategy, Cook said the department has seen a significant decrease in phone calls based on panhandling complaints.

However, Cook said that hasn’t stopped many panhandlers from their activities.

“Many prolific solicitors are well versed in the law and keep a close eye on our police presence and leave the area if we are driving by,” Cook said. “They sometimes will try to return to locations when they don’t see us, so we have utilized undercover and covert operations to detect, enforce and arrest violators during special operations.”

Capehart encouraged panhandlers to refer to local shelters that help people specific to their needs, such as the Arlington Life Shelter. However, Bill doubts the health and safety conditions of such shelters, given previous experiences he’s had with them in the past.

“All of ‘em suck,” Bill said. “I’ve stayed in numerous shelters across the United States. All of ‘em have bed bugs.”

Bill said the most people can do for panhandlers is to just be sympathetic to their situation and why they’re in those situations in the first place.

“You never know whether the guy had a broken life or a broken back,” Bill said. “Life and people like to try to look at everything through one little scope and say ‘That’s what that is.’ But people don’t work that way. You could look the exact same and be facing something totally different.”