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Tampa council again tackling panhandling issue

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Published:   |   Updated: May 3, 2013 at 10:55 AM

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TAMPA -

Roughly a year and a half after Tampa officials declared victory in the war on panhandlers, the City Council is wading into the contentious issue again.

Driven by complaints from business owners and residents in the downtown and Ybor City areas, the council is looking at curbing aggressive panhandling outside sidewalk cafés, banks and near ATM machines.

And in another move aimed primarily at the homeless, the council is considering prohibitions against camping in city parks, sleeping in city rights-of-way and storing belongings in public areas. Requested by the police, the ordinance would give officers a tool to remove homeless people from parks and sidewalks when they refuse to take advantage of available beds at nearby social welfare agencies.

Council members asked assistant City Attorney Rebecca Kert to bring back draft ordinances on June 27 to address both issues.

In taking on the issues, the council is likely to stir up many of the same arguments that raged two years ago when the city moved to rid busy city street corners of beggars. Advocates for the homeless accused city officials of criminalizing poverty, while the city and law enforcement argued the panhandlers had created a public safety issue.

An inkling of those same arguments arose Thursday morning when business owners and managers, mostly from Ybor City, lined up to ask the council for help with what they said were increasingly aggressive panhandlers.

“I’m constantly having to go out and deal with people who are bothering my customers,” said Don Barco, of King Corona Cigars and Café. “Coming in to work in the morning on 16th Street, a lot of times I have to step over people sleeping on the sidewalk.”

But homeless advocates, including Hillsborough school board member Candy Olson, urged the council to address the problem with compassion. The answer to poverty, they said, is not a jail cell, but jobs, housing and physical and mental healthcare.

“Keeping quality of life is very important,” Olson said, “but at the same time we need to work on finding solutions for those who are homeless.”

Assistant Police Chief John Bennett told the council his officers were finding greater numbers of homeless being victimized by crime as well as more criminal acts being committed by homeless people. The department also seems to be getting more complaints from the community about the homeless, Bennett said, with “disproportionate challenges” in downtown and Ybor City.

“We’re not trying to arrest our way out of the problem,” Bennett said. “We’re just looking for options.”

Bennett said an officer assigned to work with the homeless had found available beds on some nights for people staying overnight in parks, but some refused to go to the shelters.

Some members of the council were skeptical of the need for an ordinance. Instead they said Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s administration has failed to attack the problem of homelessness with sufficient resources.

“I don’t see an ordinance that would get them into a bed,” said Councilwoman Yvonne “Yolie” Capin. “We need something a lot more comprehensive than that … We made recommendations. As far as I can see, it fell on deaf ears.”

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern said the city, under former Mayor Pam Iorio and Buckhorn, had not given “one penny” toward social services or beds for homeless residents, even though the council had “asked and asked.”

“We’ve got no skin in the game,” Mulhern said.

That drew a heated response from Tom Snelling, director of the Planning and Development department, who said his department had worked on several housing projects for the poor, including the new Metropolitan Ministries building on Nebraska Avenue.

“It potentially could house between 200 and 300 individuals that would be homeless otherwise without that facility to go to,” Snelling said.

Kert, the assistant city attorney, told council members solicitation is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and cannot be banned outright. The city already has an ordinance prohibiting aggressive solicitation, but Kert said the law is hard to enforce.

“What we can do, in a content-neutral way, is regulate the time, place and manner of that speech,” Kert said. She noted that Fort Lauderdale had successfully enacted a solicitation ban on its beaches.

As for an ordinance prohibiting sleeping outdoors or in public places, Kert said it won’t be constitutional unless there are beds available for the campers to go to and storage facilities for their belongings.

The council unanimously voted to have Kert draw up the ordinances.

“I think the hope is, if we have an ordinance like that, perhaps it will be the impetus for more beds and facilities for homeless people to use,” Councilman Harry Cohen said.


msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

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