The question of the panhandling rules and regulations by the City of Houston and how the Houston Police Department (HPD) enforces them was raised at the Oct. 11 Kingwood Services Association (KSA) Public Safety meeting. One of the committee members raised the issue with representatives of the HPD present at the meeting.
“I am going to call it panhandling because I don’t know what else to call it, but I saw like four gentlemen who were on the corner of Northpark Drive and West Lake Houston Parkway and I don’t know if that is something you need a permit for. Is that permitted or can you tell me how that is handled?” she asked.
HPD Officer Jesse Morales responded:
“This is a civil incident which my unit actually does investigate. My recommendation is if you see that occurring, you call the non emergency police number (713-884-3131) for panhandling and an officer will go over there and investigate,” he said. At intersections, the roadway where solicitation is prohibited is basically defined by the power lines overhanging the intersection, he said.
City Code of Ordinances, Chapter 1, Article 1, Sections 28-46 lists “aggressive panhandling” as a misdemeanor that is punishable by a fine up to $500. It defines panhandling as seeking in public places by communication, verbally or by gesture, funds of goods for food, personal favors such as transportation or clothing or any other purpose to directly benefit an individual or family. Public places are defined in the ordinance as a street, sidewalk or other place that is open to the public including at ATMs, parking meters, parking fee collection boxes and in-transit facilities. However, it defines aggressive in terms of distance by stipulating it is only illegal within eight feet of the person being solicited. Meeting those standards are what defines how the police can respond when called.
“If they are in the median, technically they are in the roadway,” Morales said. Panhandlers first need to be given a verbal warning. When an officer arrives at the scene, he or she will need to identify the individuals, give them the verbal warning and then check to see if they have received any type of warning in the past.
“At that point, that is where we can see about issuing citations or, if there is a more egregious reason, arresting them for other offenses,” Morales said.
Commander L.J. Baimbridge of the HPD Kingwood Station added additional perspective to the panhandling issue.
“There are certain ordinances we can enforce but you kind of get into a little bit of a gray area, so you have to be careful and, of course, you can have legitimate ones,” he said. Baimbridge explained in the past there were often people selling Houston Chronicles and others taking up collections for one cause or another, many of them legitimate or religiously based that raise a lot of First Amendment issues.
“I know exactly what you are talking about here. We have received numerous calls, not always on these guys but on the same intersections,” Baimbridge said.
Morales pointed out it was often the same organization arranging and gaining from the solicitations. He explained he has developed a tracking base that is used to track these organizations and their activity.
“Typically, once they get the warning, they leave and will be silent for a couple of weeks and then they will send somebody completely new out there and the process starts all over again,” Morales said.
In other business,
- Chairman Marshall Settegast announced the Kingwood Police Station was requesting the committee consider providing $1,000 to obtain a total of eight reflective all-weather jackets for use by local officers on duty in Kingwood when conditions require high visibility. The jackets will remain assigned to the station and not to individuals to ensure they remain properly in use in the Kingwood area. The committee agreed and approved up to $1,100 for the jackets.
- The committee authorized the money needed to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to Kingwood’s first responders who will be on duty on those days. The meals to be distributed on each holiday are expected to total 166. The food will be prepared as individual boxed meals prepared and delivered to all the Kingwood fire stations, the Kingwood police station, the Atascocita Volunteer Fire Department and the Constable’s Precinct 4 Station which includes the sheriff’s department.
The next Public Safety Committee meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. The public is invited to attend. Due to the current COVID-19 situation, it will take place as a Zoom teleconference. Those planning to attend should call the Kingwood Association Management office at 281-358-5192 a day or two prior to the meeting to obtain teleconference credentials.