William Charles Tinker wtinker@verizon.net
Wed, 23 Aug 2006 03:03:06 -0400


Aug. 23, 2006


As part of a larger initiative to get people off the streets, White urges 
Houstonians to donate to groups instead of panhandlers

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Sweat rolled down his face as he moved slowly from one car to another at the 
intersection of Richmond and the West Loop on Tuesday, carrying a cup and a 
sign asking motorists for help.
"I ain't going to bother anybody. I ain't going to steal anything. Anything 
I want, I'm going to ask for right here on the corner," said Charles 
Robinson, 65, who collects about $15 a day panhandling to help him bridge 
the gap between disability checks.

Mayor Bill White and advocates for the homeless think there's a better way.
As one of several new city initiatives to battle homelessness, White is 
asking Houstonians not to give money to street beggars, but instead to 
donate to organizations that help the homeless.
"We want people to give, but we want to give in a smart manner," said White, 
who recently began spreading the word through radio advertisements. "If you 
see somebody begging in the streets, and you feel sorry for them, don't give 
to that person, but instead give to organizations to help turn around 
The city also has set up a special municipal court that encourages homeless 
to clear outstanding traffic tickets and other minor violations. Outstanding 
cases prevent people from getting driver's licenses or identification cards 
they need for housing and employment.
And in certain neighborhoods, it soon may be illegal to sit or lie on 
sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
That's already the law in downtown and Midtown, but three other close-in 
neighborhoods - Old Sixth Ward, Avondale and Greater Hyde Park - have 
petitioned City Council to expand the ordinance to their areas.
The panel will hear from the public on that issue today.
Permanent housing
The initiatives coincide with completion of a comprehensive report that 
calls for providing permanent housing to thousands of homeless people who 
need long-term help to stay off the streets.
"The large majority of the homeless are incapable of being independent 
because of mental illness or physical disability," said former Councilman 
Gordon Quan, who chaired the panel of government and nonprofit leaders that 
produced the report.
The "Strategic Plan to Address Homelessness" cites research showing that 35 
percent of Harris County's 12,000 to 14,000 homeless will need lifelong 
care, and 55 percent will need periodic help. Only about 10 percent, it 
says, can become self-sufficient within a year.
The United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast is investing $500,000 to begin acting 
on recommendations in the report.
Quan and other advocates for the homeless say the mayor's suggestion to 
donate to groups instead of individuals and the creation of the new court 
docket will help people get off streets and into assistance programs.
They are less enthusiastic about expanding the so-called "civility" 
ordinance that prohibits sleeping on sidewalks during the day in certain 
areas, saying it just pushes the homeless elsewhere.
"It's anything but civil," said Anthony Love, president of the Coalition for 
the Homeless of Houston and Harris County, who supports the mayor's 
initiatives. "It tends to move the people around and not get at the core 
issues that contribute to homelessness to begin with."
The Coalition is helping steer homeless people who want to clear tickets 
through the new court that meets on the fourth Wednesday of every month. 
Violators must agree to participate in the Coalition's rehabilitation 
program, and they can perform community service in lieu of a fine. Most 
homeless who attended the court since its start two months ago have had 
traffic-related violations, said Judge Berta Mejia, presiding judge at 
Municipal Courts.
"It helps the person remove their legal barriers and be able to obtain 
housing, be able to be employed, and it clears the cases in our courts," she 
'Civility' ordinance
The proposal to expand the "civility" ordinance likely will be on the 
council agenda next week, and the administration expects it to be approved.
More than 100 residents of each neighborhood signed a petition asking City 
Council to expand the law. Those residents are supported by Councilman 
Adrian Garcia, whose district includes the Old Sixth Ward.
"These (homeless) folks need very specific help and attention and care, and 
they're not going to get it on the sides of the streets," he said.
Councilwoman Ada Edwards, who represents Avondale and Greater Hyde Park, 
disagrees. "To take a whole category of people and make it illegal for them 
to be in a public space is wrong," she said. "It criminalizes people who 
happen to be homeless."
Capt. Dwayne Ready, a Houston police spokesman, said the department doesn't 
issue many cases under the ordinance.
"But I can promise we've moved a lot of people off of sidewalks and out of 
areas where they weren't supposed to be, because we had the tool," he said.
Robinson said he sometimes can afford a place to sleep at night using the 
money he collects panhandling. But while shelters are helpful, he still 
needs to beg until he receives his disability check.
"Shelters are going to give you food and clothes and a bed," said Robinson. 
"People need money, too."
Chronicle reporter Matt Stiles contributed to this report.
alexis.grant@chron.com mike.snyder@chron.com