Tampa City Council closes in on tougher panhandling laws decried by homeless advocates

06/27/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tampa City Council members took the first step in passing an even tougher panhandling ban than it already has during their meeting Thursday.

Ron Zealand owns Off Site Technology Solutions on North Franklin Street. He said women especially have been accosted by homeless individuals looking for money.

“Some of my employees have concealed weapon permits and they’re using them now because they’re telling me that they’re concerned about their safety in that area.”

One ordinance would ban panhandling in parts of downtown and Ybor from I-275 to Palm Avenue and from North Boulevard to Adamo Drive. It also prohibits people from soliciting money at bus or trolley stops, sidewalk cafes or any area within 15 feet of an ATM or bank entrance. Homeless advocate Charissa Stepp said the city should be looking for ways to help get people a place to live instead.

“This isn’t a homeless problem. They’re homeless people. It is a community problem. It is all of our responsibilities. And it’s not just your responsibility. We look to you because you are the leaders for our city. It’s mine to deal with and it’s the business owners to deal with and it’s the people on the street to deal with. It’s a community problem for us to all work together to do what we can to help out our fellow humans and help out our friends and people who we could be. Something could happen and we could be that person on the street.”

A second ordinance being considered would prohibit sleeping in public parks or sidewalks. The ban also includes a prohibition on public urination or defecation. Another business owner on Franklin Street, Carl Johnson, said that has been a problem in his area.

“It was becoming quite an unsanitary condition. With Mr. Cass’s help, all of the property owners got together, we closed down the alley; we put up some nice decorative gates, but now the people are proceeding to go in between the cars in parking lots. Two weeks ago I was out in front of my building, 9:30 in the morning and there’s a man standing there urinating on … when we yelled at him for doing that, his response was, ‘well, what do you expect me to do?’ I don’t know, but I don’t expect him to go in public like that.”

Both residents and business owners want the problem to go away, even if that means just shifting it somewhere else. One resident suggested offering transit passes to people in lieu of a fine for ordinance violations. Thomas Rogers is part of a family owned business in the area outlined by the proposed ordinance.

“It’s like a balloon, you know, you squeeze it here and it pops out somewhere else. We’d love to see it pop out somewhere else, but it’s allowed to be here where we are and it’s unfair.”

Supporters of the ordinance repeated words like ‘accosted’ and ‘problem’ when referring to people living on the streets. Troy Cluft, a Tampa homeless advocate, took offense to the constant claim that the area had a homeless problem. He said being homeless shouldn’t be criminalized. And as for complaints that homeless people were urinating and defecating in public places, Troy Hartman said there isn’t much of a choice.

“All I can think of is to give us an alternative. Give us somewhere where we can use the bathroom at 3 in the morning when we wake up and have to use the bathroom. Personally, I use shopping bags so I don’t leave – that’s my DNA, I’m not going to leave it anywhere.”

City Council members, before voting on the ordinances, also got an update on efforts to provide services for people who are homeless. The Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition is expecting almost 300 housing vouchers for mostly veterans considered chronically homeless. Tampa Police Officers could not arrest individuals in violation of the sleeping ordinance if there were no where else to take them. City Council member Harry Cohen suggested implementing a program similar to Pinellas County’s Safe Harbor. It’s a large room at the Pinellas County jail that was converted to use as a shelter.

“The facility itself sits on property that would be similar to what we have at our complex on Falkenburg Road where the here in Hillsborough County the Sheriff and the Clerk and a lot of the other governmental functions actually take place in one large complex.”

Another council member, Yolie Capin, snapped at city staff for not adequately addressing ways to reduce homelessness instead of shifting it.

“I was hoping to hear more from the administration today considering we are considering these two ordinances. I’ve been here three years and three years I have been asking – as a matter of fact one of the things was to come back every month and every month you come back there’s nothing to report.”

The extended panhandling ban will be voted on by council at its meeting on July 18.

The ban on public sleeping also passed on first reading, 6-1.

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