Panhandlers are turning stretches of North Side roads into homeless highways, and residents — while sympathetic — want something done to make the area safer for everyone concerned.
Colleen Waguespack is just one of many residents who feel there’s an increasing number of drifters haunting major intersections, wooded areas and businesses on the North Side.
Waguespack is especially worried panhandlers could get hurt or distract passing motorists.
“As I was driving on Wurzbach, I noticed a female panhandler sitting on the curb at the turnaround while her partner was working the traffic,” Waguespack recalled of a Sept. 13 incident.
The panhandler initially dismissed Waguespack’s warning of roadway danger.
“Before the light changed, a large truck approached the turnaround and had to come to a stop, blocking traffic, as she finally decided to move off the curb,” she added.
San Antonio has a law against aggressive panhandling, but local leaders acknowledge the ordinance does little to deter people — homeless or not — from seeking money from passing motorists.
“The panhandling problem has gotten progressively worse in our area over the past two years, particularly at the Wurzbach/Northwest Military Highway intersection,” said Waguespack, chairwoman of Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development.
Many North Siders have contacted the city or expressed frustration on social media platforms, saying they wish police and homeless advocacy agencies could do more.
On the NextDoor website in February, a Woods of Shavano resident described a homeless woman sitting at a bus stop across from Locke Hill Elementary and Clark High schools. She suggested the woman could be suffering from mental illness.
“She probably just finally settled to rest,” the neighbor wrote. “It must be really horrible to be homeless.”
Homeless populations are spreading farther from the inner city. Encampments are taking root around Blanco Road/Loop 1604, De Zavala Road/Interstate 10, Nacogdoches Road and 1604, and along Austin Highway, officials said.
According to San Antonio city data, authorities performed 121 homeless camp outreaches citywide from October 2017 to July 2018, including West Hausman Road/I-10, Wurzbach/Northwest Military, Blanco between West Avenue and Salado Creek, 1604 and U.S. 281, and two spots along San Pedro Avenue north of Loop 410.
The city processed 2,544 citations for soliciting motorists in 2017, and 1,814 citations through Sept. 1 of this year. The city also issued 263 citations for aggressive solicitation last year, and 96 citations through Sept. 1.
North Side City Council members are addressing the issue differently.
District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry formed a task force in 2017, asking the panel to come up with ideas to address roadway solicitation of motorists.
Per one of the task force’s recommendations, Perry got money approved to create a homeless outreach position, through San Antonio’s 2019 budget.
“We have a large encampment problem that we’re continuing to find,” Perry told colleagues at a Sept. 5 council B session, referring to parts of Austin Highway, Perrin-Beitel Road, Nacogdoches Road and Broadway.
District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez worked with San Antonio Fear Free Environment officers to produce a video for his council Facebook page.
At Wurzbach and Northwest Military, Pelaez talked with SAFFE Officer Steve Beilstein, who said he and other police routinely tell panhandlers to move because they pose a roadway hazard.
Beilstein said police often cite the panhandler or drive him or her to Haven for Hope downtown. But he echoed what Police Chief William McManus told a crowd at a July public safety town hall about panhandling: “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
The arrest and processing of a panhandler or a homeless person can average two or more hours before the officer returns to patrol duties. Regardless of law-enforcement action, many panhandlers and homeless individuals return to their old site or simply relocate.
Pelaez successfully included funds in the new fiscal budget for a pilot program that will have signs at key District 8 intersections, encouraging drivers to ignore panhandlers and donate money to homeless advocates.
“These signs will inform our residents that there is a better way to provide for our most vulnerable citizens and will direct their generosity to the many organizations in our community that focus on homelessness, including Haven for Hope, (Society of) St. Vincent de Paul and SAMMinistries,” Pelaez said at the Sept. 13 council meeting.
Authorities admit there’s another challenge: determining which panhandlers are genuinely homeless. Some people suggest a few panhandlers feign homelessness to get money.
According to her July NextDoor post, a Summerfield resident saw two men asking for handouts at Wurzbach and Northwest Military, then saw them a short time later counting money at H-E-B Alon Towne Centre.
“It just confirmed to me do not give these people money,” the woman wrote. “They both looked able and healthy enough to get a job.”
District 9 Councilman John Courage said the community is challenged with protecting motorists, pedestrians and panhandlers at major intersections.
“It has been researched and determined that the vast number of panhandlers are not victims of unfortunate circumstances, but have adopted this lifestyle because they feel separated from the community as a whole and/or have various addiction problems,” Courage said.
Courage agreed with Pelaez that motorists should donate their money to advocates for the disenfranchised instead of the homeless people and panhandlers encountered on busy thoroughfares.