By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Christmas spirit: 'Tis the season to celebrate the brotherhood and sisterhood of all mankind and give a thought to those in need.
And then throw those God-damned beggars into the slammer.
Ho, ho, ho. It's a Very Special City Hall Noël, as this week the city council was scheduled to vote on a revised anti-panhandling ordinance aimed at throwing the bums out of Downtown, Uptown, Deep Ellum and Victory Park. Begging is already a no-no after dark in Dallas, as is soliciting near ATMs. Aggressive "coercive" begging is also outlawed. Now come the new "solicitation free zones"—where begging is out 24/7—aimed at making the city more presentable to visitors and those delicate souls who must be shielded from unwelcome interaction with anyone less fortunate than themselves.
It's the pre-Super Bowl bums rush.
The amended ordinance up for a vote December 8 also hits violators in the bum-free zones with a $500 fine. That's right, City Hall wants to fine people whose chief crime is a deep lack of money and standing on the wrong street. Some might call that counterintuitive. Others might say cruel. We prefer the term "batshit."
"To me, it's a disgrace to even think about it," says John Fullinwider, a long-time local advocate for the homeless. "All attempts to regulate [panhandling] eventually fail, because it's a necessity. It's futile. Particularly the fines are futile."
Time and time again, the city has adopted measures against beggars—often preceding big, tourist-driven events—only to find that beggars insist on remaining destitute. But are the new fines really futile?
Let's be realists: While technically it's unconstitutional to jail the indigent for failure to pay a fine, in fact, destitute inmates can't afford lawyers to file writs of habeas corpus, so it's possible anyone who neglects to pay a begging fine could end up in jail for a few days until a judge rules that the poor soul has stayed long enough to cover the fine. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure even has guidelines about that. Inmates jailed for being too poor to pay a fine must get at least $50 credit toward the fine and court costs for no more than every 24 hours behind bars. It's possible a panhandler picked up for nonpayment of a fine will do a few days in jail, which makes it pretty clear what this new ordinance is really about: It's a roust—a broom and dustbin to allow cops to sweep away the unsightly folks spoiling the view in Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.