Beverly Feirtag has lived in the north Fort Worth Park Glen neighborhood for 14 years. A few years ago, the problem of panhandling started to crop up with increasing frequency in the area, she said.
“It’s morning to evening, on every single corner,” she said.
Feirtag initially reported the incidents to the non-emergency number; then, at the advice of then-council member Cary Moon’s office, she began calling 911. She shared the advice with neighbors encountering similar problems, but they were hesitant to clog up emergency response lines with panhandling reports.
Then, Feirtag found out she could report panhandling through the MyFW app, and encouraged her neighbors to do the same.
“I relayed the information on my Facebook group, so they could be part of the solution,” she said.
While excited by the new tool at her disposal, she was disheartened when she didn’t see much response from the city when it came to enforcement. A chance meeting with Officer Mike Kuzenka, who heads the Fort Worth Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Program and Enforcement unit, revealed a small but impactful problem.
When residents reported panhandling, they were sometimes categorizing their complaint under the ‘homeless camp’ tab instead of panhandling. Kuzenka’s primary job is responding to complaints about homeless camps — which he receives hundreds of each month — and helping the people there access resources and housing opportunities. But some panhandling complaints were also being added to his workload, with disappointing results.
“I just can’t get there in a timely manner to catch them,” Kuzenka wrote in an email to city staff this summer. “I am so busy with just camping violations.”
What is Fort Worth’s panhandling ordinance?
Fort Worth passed an ordinance barring ‘aggressive panhandling’ in 2017, which bans panhandling “within 20 feet of … areas where the public is considered vulnerable or where solicitation would interfere with the flow of pedestrian or motor vehicle traffic.”
Areas in the ordinance include but are not limited to:
- Bank entrances and exits
- Parking meters on a street and public parking garages
- The entrance or exit of a restaurant
- In a bus, at a bus station or stop
- A marked crosswalk
- An entrance of a commercial or government building.
Neighborhood police officers were intended to investigate panhandling complaints when the MyFW app was created. A properly submitted panhandling complaint will show up on the responsible neighborhood police officer’s workload, and notify them of the issue. But in order to file a complaint, residents have to scroll through request types in alphabetical order — and as Kuzenka quipped, “H comes before P.”
After a resident incorrectly submitted a complaint, it was often at least three days before Kuzenka was able to investigate. By then, the subject of the complaint was long gone.
“The problem is, with panhandling, it’s fluid,” Feirtag said. “They get enough money to do whatever they need to do, then they walk away.”
Homeless camps, panhandlers require different resources
While residents might think homeless camps and panhandlers need the same resources at first glance, Kuzenka said that’s not necessarily the case. There is some overlap between homeless populations and panhandlers, but not every panhandler is homeless, and the resources the homeless unit provides might not be useful for them.
“Some people are using the homeless community to get money from using someone else’s hardships,” he said.
The city has in recent years released multiple campaigns encouraging people not to give money directly to those panhandling on street corners. Instead, city officials recommend giving that money to larger organizations who can spend the money more effectively.
“People have a good heart, but their money could really be used to help end the problem of homelessness,” Feirtag said. “It could be doing more harm than good (giving to panhandlers).”
John Ramsey, director of nonprofit organization Hands of Hope, previously told the Report giving consistently to people panhandling can accidentally cause dependency issues and dissuade people from looking for long-term resources.
Kuzenka said neighborhood police officers are better equipped to handle panhandling reports compared to his unit. For one, there’s more of them — the HOPE unit has five officers currently. Neighborhood police officers are also able to respond to a panhandling complaint quicker, increasing the chance they can actually intervene and provide resources to someone panhandling.
How do you contact your neighborhood police officer?
To find your neighborhood police officer, enter your home address into the police department’s search bar here. The search results will provide you with the neighborhood police officer’s contact information, as well as the location of the nearest police facility.
If a neighborhood police officer needs help connecting someone to resources, they know to call Kuzenka’s unit, he said. Similarly, HOPE officers have no problem calling a neighborhood police officer when they hear about something that needs immediate attention.
“The NPOs have resources, but not like we do,” he said. “We work closely with them.”
Bringing the community, council and police together
After Feirtag realized panhandling complaints were being dropped onto Kuzenka’s plate, she contacted her council member’s office looking for solutions. One immediate change planned: the ability for residents to search for complaint categories, so they don’t have to scroll to find them.
Sharon Gamble, customer service administrator with the city, said there are over 114 request types for residents to choose from on the app, which has been available since 2019.
“Right now you have to scroll through all our topics or categories,” she said. “Soon if you want specific requests about streets, you’ll just put in streets, and it will list all the requests that deal with streets … so it’s going to make it easier.”
Since talking with city officials, Feirtag said she’s seen a dramatic increase in enforcement of the panhandling ordinance. Before, she’d have to pull over into a parking lot or try to fill out a complaint form while driving. Now, she said, there’s usually a police officer already pulling up to talk with someone panhandling before she can even take out her phone.
“When I reported to the police, I would also report to my council member,” she said. “If people loop them in, it goes better. You have to bring the community, police and council all together. Then you can actually get things done.”
Alan Blaylock, who replaced Moon as the District 4 council member in a May special election, agreed.
“When you get the right people together and you talk about what’s happening, solutions start happening,” he said. “We have the tools we need, it’s just a matter of getting the resources and bringing them to bear properly.”
Blaylock will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and host a community meeting in October to speak with residents about the city’s response to panhandling, including improvements and what more needs to be done.
“I’m elected to work with the city on their behalf, and this is one of the top concerns that continues to be brought forward,” Blaylock said. “I do feel really good about the direction we’re going, I do feel progress is being made.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.