Dallas City Hall believes it might have finally found a way to end panhandling now — with a pilot program titled "End Panhandling Now."
For years the city has been wrestling with getting beggars off the streets. First it tried to make panhandling illegal in some areas, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional. It then contemplated giving panhandlers jobs, until officials realized they were offering less than many panhandlers make in a day. And just before Thanksgiving, there was talk of planting "giving meters" in downtown, Deep Ellum and other areas heavily trafficked by those with their hands out, which the council members shot down with a shrug as being too soft.
But on Monday the council’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee threw its support behind the latest iteration being proposed by several city departments, the intent of which is to stop passers-by from giving spare change to panhandlers.
The new campaign, which would involve public-service announcements and social-media outreach and eventually billboards and street signs, would "discourage people from giving to panhandlers by providing public education and addressing public safety," said Jessica Galleshaw, the newly hired managing director in the city’s Office of Community Care.
"We want people to stop giving directly to panhandlers," Galleshaw said Monday. "We know there are better ways to help people."
There are actually several components to the pilot, which would involve hiring four new people to identify panhandlers. Their job will be to find out, for instance, which are homeless or drug-addicted and in need of assistance, and which ones are the professionals standing on the roadways bilking drivers out of their loose change, and where those panhandlers do most of their business. Under the new pilot, panhandlers could also be issued what are called "V citations," which don’t go on their criminal records but instead direct them toward community courts, where they might be sentenced to community service or, the city hopes, services they could use to get off the street.
"We’re not telling people not to donate," said Monica Cordova, a city spokeswoman, after Monday’s meeting. "We’re just telling them to donate to the organizations that can better take care of these individuals."
Eventually, officials said, signs could go up in heavily trafficked areas — downtown, say, or Deep Ellum — telling people not to give to panhandlers. But that’s down the road: What the committee moved to the full council was a six-month pilot program funded with $200,000 the council already set aside in September to grapple with the panhandling problem.
Galleshaw said a full year’s run will cost an estimated $465,000.
Only one council member was displeased with the proposal: Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, who said he didn’t want to waste time identifying "hot spots" when everyone already knows where panhandlers congregate — at Martin Luther King Jr. and Interstate 45, for instance, or North Stemmons Freeway and Mockingbird Lane.
"It’s a waste of money to implement something we already know,"’ Caraway said. "I don’t want to see us waste time. I want to see us solve the problem."
But the consensus among his colleagues seemed to be: The pilot program is a good start — and at long last.
Far North Dallas’ Sandy Greyson thanked staff for listening to the council’s complaints after November’s poorly received presentation. And she praised the directness of the program: "End panhandling now."
Philip Kingston, whose district includes Greenville Avenue and much of downtown, also seemed pleased by the latest proposal. Said Kingston, no city in the country has a good handle on clamping down on panhandling.
"But I don’t think that’s an excuse for not trying," he said.
Kingston said his residents face "by far the greatest burden" when it comes to dealing with sidewalk and streetside beggars. And all they want, he said, is a credible plan to deal with the problem.
"This, to me, looks like at least the start of one," he said, encouraging staff to try and fail and come back if tweaks need to be made. "I don’t think there’s an easy solution for any of this, but we have to try."