Begging for Help

Paula Foreman, sales director of Sambuca Jazz Cafe, felt compelled to take action one evening when she saw a woman panhandling for money in her restaurant. She escorted the intruder to the door, but the trouble didn't end there.

"She didn't take it well when I asked her to leave," Foreman recalls. In fact, the panhandler began urinating on the sidewalk, just feet from the restaurant's entrance.

A nearby police officer arrested the woman before she made it to the next block. "She had to spend the night in jail," Foreman says.

The downtown revitalization of recent years has brought a proliferation of dining establishments, but it also has escalated the number of incidents involving street people who used to claim some of the same blocks now occupied by cafes.

Restaurateurs complain of derelicts harassing patrons, sleeping near their doorways, showering in the outside fountains and using their exterior walls as urinals.

"They take baths in the fountain outside my restaurant," says Bill Sadler, co-owner of Solero, on Prairie near Sambuca. "They clog up the fountain; it breaks down every other day. It's costing the city a lot of money in repairs." Sadler says the homeless will sleep along the street on mattresses made of free publications such as the Houston Press.

"Then they leave the papers there, and we have a big mess to clean up."

An anti-panhandling civility ordinance recently went into effect. Sadler says it has had a positive but limited effect in reducing sleeping outdoors and begging inside restaurants. "But they still need to do something about the bathing in the fountain and people eating out of garbage cans," he explains. "When you go out to a restaurant, you don't want an atmosphere of shabbiness."

Foreman says street people now tend to panhandle at a nearby parking garage entrance rather than in front of her restaurant. She's encouraged that the problems are being targeted by a larger police presence downtown. The irony is that the massive street and building construction projects have crippled business at many downtown restaurants. Sadler says cafe operators estimate losses at about $50 million since work began. But those projects also have provided at least some benefit by adding far more police officers to the area, many of them drawn downtown to work security jobs at the construction sites.

"The one good thing about the construction downtown is that it has brought a lot more police into the area," Foreman says. "You see officers on every corner."

But Zack Ateyea, co-owner of downtown's Papillon Bistro Français and Osteria d'Aldo, says officers still tell him that they can't do more than scare off outside beggars because they are on public property. "The police say you have to catch them in the act [of urinating]. Usually they're finished before you can do anything."

Part of the problem is the lack of toilet facilities for the general public.

Foreman, who has a reputation in cafe circles for being kind to the homeless, says flexibility is the key -- that some restaurant operators worsen the situation by being rude. She says she usually just asks panhandlers to move to the other side of the street, and they cooperate.

Sadler takes a similar approach. "When we ask them to leave, they leave. They're not an aggressive, physically robust bunch. A lot of them are at least partially incapacitated. In the 1960s and '70s the street people were a lot more aggressive and much more difficult to deal with."

Several months ago Ateyea tried to help downtown's needy by giving away Papillon's leftover food. "But the next day we had 20 people there wanting food. If we hadn't stopped doing that, it would have been an army."

Sadler and some other operators insist that handing over spare change doesn't help beggars, saying most of the money they collect goes toward alcohol, or worse. Dick Druary, senior representative of Star of Hope mission, agrees. "More than likely, if you give them money, they'll drink it up or shoot it up. They need professional help, and we'll give them that. And we'll give anybody who's hungry something to eat."

Star of Hope provides free meals -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- for 1,200 people per day and offers beds, showers, clothing and laundry for about 500 every night. "We're open 24 hours, and we never turn anybody away," Druary says.

Similar services can be found at the SEARCH Resource Center at 2505 Fannin and Star of Hope's women's shelter at 419 Dowling.

"You have to differentiate between the homeless people and street people," Druary says. "Some panhandlers are making $30,000 a year. They're highly intelligent. They could use their brains to make a lot more money in other businesses than panhandling."

In fact, fledgling business enterprises can often be found in the Market Square area at night. Well-groomed, neatly attired men wave at vehicles, directing them to park in spaces that turn out to be regular streetside spots. Metered parking ends at 6 p.m., so the parking is free. But the unauthorized "attendant" will try to charge from $2 to $5 to "watch" your car.

And what happens to those who don't pay? "You don't want to know," says the self-styled attendant.

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Alan Truex