Data and records obtained by the Current show that between January 1, 2013, and early October of this year the San Antonio Police Department issued more than 12,000 citations for violations of city laws aimed at discouraging the homeless and poor from hanging out downtown or asking for donations. The crimes include aggressive solicitation—seeking donations in an intimidating manner—but also any solicitation within forbidden zones, camping in a public place, littering, spitting, urinating or defecating in public, disorderly conduct and sitting or lying in the right of way.
All of these violations are Class C misdemeanors, some punishable by fines of up to $200 apiece and others up to $500 each.
In the recent debate over San Antonio Police Chief William McManus’ ill-fated proposal to ticket individuals who give to panhandlers, the police maintained that they are focused on a class of individuals who aren’t truly homeless, but who are essentially low-level con artists, seeking charity that they then spend on cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.
“I’ve been working the streets for 40 years, and in four cities, and I see what happens to the majority of money that goes to panhandlers,” McManus told the Current in September. “A few people may need a buck to go buy a burger, but the vast majority of people are using that money to buy alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.”
But the citations tell a different and more nuanced story. While officers issued more than 5,000 tickets for violations of the city’s anti-solicitation laws, during the same time period they also issued more than 3,000 tickets for offenses such as camping in a public place or urinating or defecating in public—violations that are likely to occur because an individual is homeless. (Other tickets were issued for potentially more troublesome behavior such as indecent exposure, or subjective violations like disorderly conduct.)
In some cases, according to records obtained by the Current, many of the same individuals received citations for multiple violations at once, racking up a steep number of tickets and even steeper fines they won’t be able to pay. One homeless man received more than 1,000 citations over a period of a few years. Two hundred and thirty-eight were issued to him in the last 18 months alone. The approximate fines for such a high volume? Nearly $25,000. The same individual received at least four citations for four different violations on the same date.
It’s a problem Stephanie Stevens, director of St. Mary’s University Law School’s criminal justice clinic, sees often. Stevens and her law students represent some homeless individuals in court, and she says many of her clients are cited for multiple offenses in one encounter with a police officer.
“In general, we’ve seen many times, virtually with all our homeless clients, that they are issued not just one ticket, they’re given multiple citations … multiple ways of citing the same behavior,” she said.
For instance, an individual might receive simultaneous citations for camping, lying in the right of way, and littering.
Sergeant Javier Salazar, spokesperson for the police department, said officers are working with the options they’re given, which are citations or arrest, to address aggressive behavior and other ordinance violations downtown.
“As a city, we need tourists and visitors that come here to feel safe, and when they’re being approached and aggressively panhandled, that’s not something that’s conducive to downtown and of course that has to be addressed,” Salazar said. “In certain situations, when somebody is camping on someone else’s property or creating a health concern, while it’s not aggressive in nature, it still has to be addressed.”
Salazar said someone’s ability to pay isn’t part of the equation.
“That person’s ability to pay or not pay is not taken into consideration at that time, that’s going to be a matter of the court,” he said. “Whatever offense is occurring in front of that officer, that officer takes appropriate action.”
But many of the behaviors that the city code prohibits, and that officers are citing, are not a threat to visitors and residents so much as an unwelcome reminder that San Antonio has plenty of residents who are less fortunate.
“Homelessness is not behavior-based, it’s not generated because someone wants to break the law. It’s people’s reality and how they live,” Stevens said. “The things that are being ticketed, like camping, are because of their lifestyle, it’s not something they’re choosing to do, so to speak.”
Once an individual receives a citation, that person must appear in court and pay a fine. Homeless and poor individuals who can’t pay are often assigned community-service hours or are given credit for time served for the hours they spent in the city detention facility.
Because the highest form of punishment for Class C misdemeanors is a fine, there’s nowhere for those tickets to go and it creates a revolving door: Once individuals are released by the magistrate, they’re right back where they started, on the street, receiving more tickets and headed back to court.
“No matter the number of tickets on ordinance violations, there is no provision to enhance those to a higher level of offense,” said Judge John Bull, who presides over the San Antonio Municipal Court. “The court is ill-equipped to deal with that many violations for one person because they’re fine-only offenses.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, a bike officer who appeared to have a good rapport with at least one of downtown’s homeless regulars—an older woman who rolls her own cigarettes and keeps to herself—expressed frustration with the system, which gives them few options for handling the regulars who engage in more objectionable behavior. “It’s a revolving door. What can we do?” he said with a rueful smile.
On another afternoon at a downtown bus stop, several bike officers tightly surrounded a man wearing a red T-shirt and hanging his head low. One of the officers handcuffed him before writing him a citation. Asked if it is normal practice to handcuff an offender while writing up a citation, Salazar said every situation is different.
“It depends on what the officer’s needs are and what he observes in the field,” he said. “That is an option available to officers.”
The recipients of these citations are also frustrated, and some of them feel targeted by officers.
Ismael Escobar Gonzalez used to work good restaurant jobs downtown. He proudly lifts his pullover to show off a T-shirt from the Iron Cactus. A trim middle-aged man, his dark hair is neatly styled and he’s an engaging storyteller. He’s also pretty clearly buzzed in the middle of a weekday afternoon. But, hey, so are some of the tourists walking along this curve of the River Walk, where tall trees shade the stone benches.
Some of the police treat them respectfully, he says, but not Officer Michael Kelley—a name well-known to SA’s downtown homeless.
Kelley, Ismael claims, writes as many as six or seven tickets for one person at a time.
“I owe $37,000 in tickets because of him,” Ismael says. He tells a story about coming out of the SAMM Shelter one day to find Kelley and another officer across the street issuing tickets to an impromptu lineup. They spotted Ismael, and Kelley summoned him over.
“Kelley said, ‘This guy here said you deserve a ticket,’” Ismael alleges.
Kevin Johnson, who calls himself “The Lawyer,” has also had unpleasant encounters with officers and has received multiple tickets at once.
“They look at me like I’m illiterate … like I’m a junky, and I’m not,” he said.
Karen Hoag has gray curls framing a sweet face that’s marred by a few large scabs on her nose and forehead. She claims Kelley has issued her as many as four tickets at a time for a multitude of offenses.
“He just hands them to me,” she said. “He never asks me to sign them.”
Salazar said that if an individual is unable to sign his or her own ticket, officers document that on the ticket itself. If someone feels they were denied the opportunity to sign, Salazar said he or she can file a complaint.
According to records obtained by the Current, officers do not always obtain the signatures of homeless individuals they are citing for breaking the law. Officers will write, “too filthy to sign,” “filthy-urine on hands,” “refused to sign mentally ill,” or “feces on hands” on the signature line. The signature line for one individual cited for camping in a public place read “Blind.”
Stevens said many of the law clinic’s homeless clients suffer from a mental illness. Salazar said police officers are trained to encourage individuals showing signs of mental illness to seek treatment at Haven for Hope.
“This is not an issue that you can arrest away,” he said.
Individuals who are suffering from substance abuse or addiction will sometimes be given the option to complete a treatment program in lieu of fines, but space is limited at Haven for Hope, which offers treatment at no cost, Stevens said.
Haven for Hope, which offers long-term resources like housing, job training and rehabilitation, as well as Prospects Courtyard as a short-term place for homeless individuals to spend the night and get a hot meal, will turn five next year. While the facility has given many people the tools they need to get back on their feet, many of San Antonio’s homeless are still in the same place they were before Haven opened.
Stevens said she’s noticed a recent increase in the number of homeless people seeking the law clinic’s assistance, as well as more people utilizing the civil justice clinic’s identification recovery program at Haven for Hope.
She said she understands that the police officers are using the options available to them to keep downtown safe and attractive, but writing mountains of tickets, especially to the homeless, won’t solve the problem.
“Giving somebody multiple tickets and racking up thousands of dollars worth of fines that they can never pay doesn’t help the community at all,” she said.