New program to turn Austin’s homeless panhandlers into downtown street vendors could launch by end of summer

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For more than two decades, Alan Graham, chief executive at Mobile Loaves and Fishes, has helped shape the community’s response to helping the homeless through innovative shelter and resource initiatives.

Now Graham wants to target panhandling by lifting the barriers between the community’s poorest individuals and entrepreneurship. A new program he hopes to launch by the end of summer would provide willing homeless community members with backpacks and carts filled with ice cream or water bottles to sell throughout downtown.

It would be a way to turn back time, Graham said, to the days when he first moved to Austin in 1976 and saw no panhandling, but rather men and women selling goods and trying to earn a living.

“Today, through occupational licensing regulation, we have virtually outlawed entrepreneurialism for people who live in extreme poverty,” Graham told the downtown commission Feb. 20. “The only remaining bastion of entrepreneurialism is the First Amendment right to beg.”

The program aims to cut down panhandling downtown by between 50 and 80 percent. With the right crowd, Graham said a person participating in the vending program could make $20-$30 per hour.

District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents almost all of Austin’s downtown area, said she is “100 percent supportive.”

“I believe it’s a well-thought-out program and one that empowers individuals to be their own business person and interact with people who can benefit from a cold drink or snack in the Austin summer heat,” Tovo said.

Tovo said the city has food-handling and food-sales licensing regulations “for good community reasons” but said she is interested in having further conversations about them.

Crucial to the program is a partnership with the First Baptist Church of Austin. Graham said Mobile Loaves and Fishes would set up a 40-foot shipping container in the surface parking lot on the other side of Ninth Street and turn it into a home base for the vendors. The vendors will each have either a backpack or a mobile cart with Mobile Loaves and Fishes branding. Graham said he hopes the program will find enough success for wider expansion throughout downtown.

“It would make our town a cool place to be where men and women are running around, being purposeful and economically driven,” Graham said.

The program comes as the city government has felt increased pressure to address Austin’s growing homelessness problem. City Council recently approved a model change for its lone operating homeless shelter and resolved to open a new homeless shelter by the end of September.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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