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HHS Committee hears preview of Austin Homeless Survey

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Most of those who panhandle in Austin are not criminals, and are not making large sums of money on the city’s street corners, according to a University of Texas study that will be presented to Austin City Council this week.


Researchers at the Center for Social Work Research have completed a preliminary draft of their study on solicitation in Austin that was ordered by the Council following debate last fall over new restrictions on panhandling. They presented their findings on Tuesday to the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee.


The research team interviewed more than 100 people panhandling in the roadway at more than 50 different locations around the city. A few respondents were selected for more extensive interviews about their life history and experiences.


“The average solicitor was white, male and over 40,” said, the principal researcher. “In general, people were homeless or had had episodes of homelessness in the past. About 70 percent had not had housing the night before our interview with them.” Lein said the average panhandler made between $20 and $50 per day. About 30 percent said they were military veterans.


“Just over half of the people we interviewed talked about seeking employment at the time, and about two-thirds wanted a regular full-time job, even if they thought there would be problems making a living at the job,” Lein said. However, she indicated that a large percentage of those surveyed would likely have trouble getting or holding a job. She cited a lack of proper identification and a history of physical or mental health problems as barriers toward employment common among those surveyed.


The study also touched on some of the hot-button issues raised during the debate over a stronger solicitation ordinance. “There was some suggestion that a large number of solicitors were organized professionals, perhaps even working for somebody,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. But the study found no evidence of that. The study did show that while many of the respondents had been ticketed for panhandling, most were not currently on parole or wanted for more serious crimes. “I think one of the most useful aspects of this study will be to dispel those common urban myths about homelessness,” Leffingwell said.


Council Member Mike Martinez agreed that the study would be useful in future discussions. “Out of the hundred respondents, when asked if they were on parole or on probation, 98 of them said ‘no’. I think that’s another common myth, that because you’re homeless, you’re either on parole or have just come out of jail,” Martinez said. “That’s just not the case.”


One of the biggest critics of last fall’s proposal to tighten restrictions on panhandling also hopes the study results will influence city policy. “When they asked these individuals what they were doing, 52 percent said they were looking for work,” said Richard Troxell with House the Homeless. “The report said they were soliciting for daily survival.”


Troxell also is the organizer of the Universal Living Wage Campaign, which calls for businesses to pay enough for a full-time employee to be able to afford housing. “The bell has rung so clearly, so loudly…that people are living on our streets are not being paid fair living wages by our businesses,” he said.

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