UTPD warns community of aggressive panhandlers near campus

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Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

The UT Police Department began warning students last week of aggressive panhandlers operating around the campus area.

The “scam artists,” UTPD said, will approach individuals and claim to be in an emergency situation, saying they are in desperate need of cash. The panhandler will then pressure individuals into going to ATM machines and withdrawing money. UTPD began warning students about the panhandlers early last week through the Campus Watch, which presents selected daily crimes reported to or observed by UTPD in the form of emails to subscribers.

Destiny Winston, a senior police officer with the Austin Police Department, said panhandlers commonly operate outside of businesses and storefronts, and individuals should always report to the police when they feel harassed by a panhandler who is being aggressive. 

“The businesses have the decision on whether or not they want to call the police, but the pedestrian should call the police if they’re feeling harassed or if the person was being aggressive,” Winston said. “At the very minimum, officers would show up, talk with the person who called in, talk with the individual if they are still there on scene and make contact with the individual and (document the incident with a report).”

Winston said APD has enforcement methods to deal with panhandlers because of city ordinances prohibiting aggressive solicitation, but if an individual willingly gives a panhandler money, there is not much officers can do for the victim. 

Communication studies senior Zena Brown, a manager at Tyler’s on Guadalupe Street, said panhandlers operate outside of the store from time-to-time, but she hasn’t seen an uptick in incidents outside the store in recent weeks. 

“We’ve seen a few here and there, but hasn’t happened lately, at least not as much as it has in previous summers,” Brown said. 

Brown said customers rarely report the incidents to the store’s employees, and employees only report to the police in cases where the panhandler or transient individual is causing severe disruptions.

“Every once in awhile, we’ll have a customer who’s not from around here come in and say ‘Hey, there’s a homeless person harassing people outside, just so y’all know,’” said Brown. “If we see people hanging around outside, the store manager will usually just tell them ‘Hey, you can’t sit outside our door,’ but we don’t usually report to the police.” 

Historically, the transient population in the downtown and West Campus areas has raised safety concerns for the students who populate the area. 

Art history junior Amy Anderson said when she lived in West Campus, she would encounter panhandlers at least twice a week, but that she never felt threatened by their presence. 

“I know they’re always special cases, but I’ve never seen any signs of danger with the homeless people I’ve encountered,” Anderson said. “I think they target younger students because we always want to try to be nice and do the right thing, because sometimes it’s hard to point out if someone’s telling the truth or not and they know they can take advantage of that.”

To avoid falling victim to the scam, APD recommends students avoid engaging and conversing with panhandlers and remain in a state of situational awareness
when walking to-and-from campus.