Brownwood City Council members navigated Tuesday through the delicate topic of setting rules for panhandling, while stressing the need to remain sensitive to people in need and make sure they receive referrals for help.
    After hearing comments from citizens including a local pastor, council members unanimously gave final approval to an ordinance that restricts where panhandlers can ask for money.
    The ordinance prohibits:
    • Panhandling on East and West Commerce Street, Main Street and Highway 377 South, Austin Avenue and West Austin Avenue and Coggin Avenue.
    • Soliciting funds from occupants of vehicles on any city street while the person is located on a street.
    • Soliciting funds within 150 feet of an intersection with a traffic light.
    • Soliciting funds on private property without the property owner’s permission.
    Violators can be fined up to $500, the ordinance states.

Background of the ordinance
    City Manager Emily Crawford explained the background of the ordinance, saying she and city staff have received calls from the public about aggressive behavior from some panhandlers who approached them. Panhandlers have sometimes blocked traffic and made people feel “threatened or uncomfortable” when they’re approached by panhandlers, Crawford said.
    City staff developed the ordinance “in the idea that we do not want to not provide assistance to those in our community who are in need,” Crawford said. The intent is to refer those in need to organizations and nonprofits that can assist them.
    “In fact, we have already been doing that,” she said, noting that not everyone has been interested in being referred.

‘Ignoring the underlying cause’
    Mayor Stephen Haynes noted that several had signed up to speak to the council, and Haynes called the first speaker, Daniel Graham, to come forward.
    “One of the most common and dangerous mistakes of public policy makers is treating a symptom and ignoring the underlying cause,” Graham said. He said the panhandling ordinance “criminalizes a symptom of poverty without addressing the complex issue of poverty itself.”
    Panhandling is considered to be protected free speech, Graham said, and he asked if council members had considered “other responses besides enforcement such as public education, social services and treatment and “situational responses.”
    Graham also asked if police don’t already have the authority to enforce existing laws and deal with panhandlers who are “aggressive or impeding or trespassing. Any unwarranted expansion of police powers is an erosion of everyone’s civil rights and civil liberties,” Graham said.
    Graham said he sees law enforcement agencies receiving new weapons, vehicles and technology. “I do not see the social service agencies getting more funding, staff or facilities,” Graham said.
    Another speaker, Kathryn White, said people have great needs and asked the council to “think about how we can meet that need.” White suggested that the council “come up with a program that helps meet the need of our citizens and continues the prosperity of our city.”
    Kelly Crenshaw, pastor of New Beginnings Church — a Brownwood church known for helping and sheltering the homeless and others in need — said he knows panhandlers who have already been ticketed, “so obviously there is already some type of law in place concerning this issue.”
    Crenshaw said he knows of panhandlers who receive citations, wait for the citations to turn into warrants and go to jail to lay out the fines — at taxpayer expense.

Some have ‘fallen on hard times’
    There are many reasons for panhandling, Crenshaw said, including addiction, mental illness, being released from prolonged incarceration and “some people have just fallen on hard times. Sometimes life just happens” such as people passing through and unable to afford to repair a vehicle that breaks down.
    Haynes reiterated that the ordinance restricts the locations of panhandling but not panhandling itself. “Brownwood is not an uncaring community,” Haynes said. “We have more social services on a per capita basis than any other community I’ve ever lived in.”
    Doak Givan, executive director of the Family Services Center, told council members about some of the resources available to help the needy including Brown County Homeless Solutions, which was recently organized to address homelessness.
    “We don’t want to enable behaviors,” Givan said. “We want to raise people up to be self sufficient. By always handing out funds and even feeding, sometimes we can enable negative behavior and keep people down.
    “My personal viewpoint is one of self sufficiency. But we can’t do that unless folks know where to go for help.”

‘Broken part of our society’
    Council member Larry Mathis said the ordinance “doesn’t solve the problem, one way or the other. … Assuming an ordinance that we may or may not pass will solve that issue is a burden this council doesn’t deserve. It’s something that belongs to the community, to churches, to family services and all both many other places — the Salvation Army, everywhere — to help solve what is clearly a broken part of our society.”
    Councilman Draco Miller recalled stopping his car to help a panhandler in Austin. Miller said he knew the panhandler might use money Miller gave him for drugs, but “it doesn’t matter what he will do with it,” Miller said. “My heart is the one that’s giving it to him because he’s in need.”
    Miller said when he got closer to the panhandler, he realized the man was a cousin — a man with a master’s degree — who fell on hard times.
    “It could hit each one of us,” Miller said. Miller concluded by saying when Brownwood officers speak with panhandlers, “I know they will be cordial and professional, and they will lead them in the right direction instead of writing them a ticket (and) educate them why they they can’t be in those areas.”