Dallas Is Holding Panhandlers' Criminal Trials in the Streets, Literally

Dallas Community Courts will be holding criminal trials out on the street through the city's new Panhandling Deflection Program.
Dallas Community Courts will be holding criminal trials out on the street through the city's new Panhandling Deflection Program. Hannly Sam via Flickr
Dallas has been wrestling with the best way to deal with panhandling, but the solutions just keep falling short. Now, the city is holding court on the street, literally.

In 2018, Dallas police said they would stop enforcing a city ordinance banning people from asking for money on the streets. The decision came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that asking others for cash in public was a form of constitutionally protected free speech.

In October 2020, Dallas City Council members proposed a new system for confronting panhandling. The panhandling deflection program aims to help some panhandlers meet their basic needs by connecting them with social service organizations, mental health crisis interventions and rapid rehousing initiatives, Office of Homeless Solutions director Christine Crossley explained.

Others who come into contact with the deflection program will be directed into the criminal justice system: those whom city marshals determine are not homeless, who have been picked up several times for panhandling, or who decline to engage with social services through Dallas Community Courts, could face  misdemeanor charges.

As part of the Panhandling Deflection Program, though, the courts system will start trying those cases out on the street, according to Crossley.

“One of the things the program is going to do, which is really revolutionary, is a community courts initiative. We’re bringing them out to adjudicate on the street,” Crossley said.

People with unstable housing situations are more prone to missing court dates for minor citations, which then leads to further charges and fines. “Instead of relying on them to go to a court date that they’re maybe never going to go to, we’re bringing community courts out,” Crossley said.

"We’re bringing [community courts] out to adjudicate on the street.” - Christine Crossley, homeless solutions office

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“When the person is issued a citation, that person will be assessed at the location, and a judge may include recommended services as a condition of their probation," Dianne Gibson, the Dallas City Attorney’s Community Courts manager, said by email.

Community courts will coordinate with various city departments … to assist those who are willing to enter the community courts program,” Gibson added.

“Community courts will say, ‘OK, you can say your piece, then we’re going to have it tried right here.’ And if it’s decided that you do get a ticket, you can clear the fine right now, or say ‘hey there’s this great community service program through community courts that you can do so you don’t have to pay the ticket,’” Crossley added.

Some advocates say the mobility of the community courts initiative is a problem, though.

“The city of Dallas is trying to make it illegal for people to ask for money. However, people have a constitutional right to ask for money,” said Dr. Hannah Lebovits, professor of public affairs and planning at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“It’s very concerning to me to see the city use the strength of the public and nonprofit sector to coerce people into engaging in involuntary public service and unpaid labor, because they’ve exercised their constitutional rights,” Lebovits added.

The initiative follows a year of record high homelessness in Dallas County. Last summer, state lawmakers passed a ban on camping outside of designated areas, prompting criticism from homeless rights advocates who say the ban further criminalizes people living on the street.
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Michael Murney is a reporting fellow at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney