St. Pete passes panhandling ban

06/04/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Residents flooded city hall in St. Pete last night to weigh in on a contentious ordinance that bans exchanging money curbside on major thoroughfares. The move, which the city council passed, was meant to curb roadside panhandling, but many were outraged about the new law’s collateral damage.

You see them on many of St. Pete’s I-275 on-ramps. They vary by age and background. Some have dogs; others come in a pair. But they all hold cardboard signs asking for your financial assistance. And they’re there every day. But a new law city council passed last night will put an end to that – perhaps.

This is a human-rights issue, it is a constitutional issue, and it's a justice issue. And the city, again, is trying to legislate itself out of a problem to please a certain portion of the public.

That was Reverend Bruce Wright, a fierce homeless advocate. He was one of more than a hundred to address the council at the five-hour hearing. Those in favor of the ordinance said the issue was primarily one of public safety, but community aesthetics were also a factor. Those who opposed the ordinance said it was far too broad, since it also bans roadside charitable fundraising and newspaper hawking. Proponent Richard Leo repeated several times that public safety is paramount.

Many times I go off 22nd Avenue, come down the exit ramp on Fifth. Doesn't matter what time of night, they're there. I've seen them at 1 a.m., twelve, eleven, two, three in the morning; they don't care. They're walking all over us.

John Brihn is one of 87 hawkers that sell the St. Petersburg Times on Sundays at the city’s major intersections. Like many of his coworkers, he urged the council to adopt a narrower rule so that he doesn’t lose his livelihood. He said a recent ordinance that barred hawkers from the city medians cut his sales in half.

I've had heart surgery. I am fighting asbestos poisoning and liver cancer. I can't be hired. I'm fighting Social Security for my disability. This is the only means of subsistence that is out there for me. And I'm up at three o'clock in the morning to go down to the pickup spot. Then I'm on my corner at five thirty in the morning, putting together 120 newspapers. And I'm out in that hot sun all day long.

Andrew Hayes said he was speaking on behalf of St. Petersburg's business community. He said that newspaper hawkers can set up shop elsewhere.

There are substantially more panhandlers than there are newspaper sellers. The newspapers can be sold in other ways, and are being sold in other ways.

Susie Austin of the Muscular Dystrophy Association said that the semi-annual curbside fundraisers firefighters hold for the organization are vital for the nonprofit.

I don't think people realize the magnitude of what the firefighters raise for MDA. First thing, the International Association of Firelighters is our number one sponsor. Last year, they raised 29 million dollars across the nation. It is our only fundraising effort that has no expenses. So it's total net profit.

Jonathan Chalker said people asking for money on the roadside are distracting, but there’s a big-picture issue at play.

*It's a distraction from what I would like to see the city become. When people — all due respect to one of the previous speakers — when people come into the town, and they drive off the Interstate, and they see people on every corner, they don't say, “Wow; what a compassionate city.” That's not the reaction they get. They go, “Wow;look at all the people on the street corners.”*

Noting the absence of minorities among the ban's supporters, Reverend Bruce Wright spelled out the sum of the council’s actions.

The people that are out there soliciting for muscular dystrophy, there's nonprofits out there, and the hawkers for the St. Pete Times, are all part of a group of people that are trying to raise support for people that are not at a point where they have the economic advantage that some of the people that were speaking today do. This is inherently a class issue. Any way you slice it, it is a class issue.

Still, the council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance, but not without reservations. Council member Wengay Newton said the ordinance is needed, but wondered aloud if it’ll actually be enforced.

I just think that, whatever we pass, I just hope it is enforced — not just something just to calm the people and pass more ordinances and then nothing happens, you know. That's my only fear.

Council member Steve Cornell said the community needs to work together, though he expects an onslaught of lawsuits.

I think we have to move forward and find ways to work together, and make this happen. And I'm committed to that. I want to hear from you; I want to work with you. I hope you won't sue me too much. I think we're going to get sued by about eight hundred different people. But I don't want that.

Council member Karl Nurse said he had to grapple with the issue, as well as the city’s reputation for being one of the meanest in the country. He said that St. Pete has actually been pretty compassionate toward the homeless.

We were actually the most compassionate city in the area. But the problem is, the more services we provided, the more people we attracted. And if somebody wants four meals a day downtown, and a place to sleep, we have those facilities.

The new ordinance will not go into effect until police have had training on its enforcement. The city expects lawsuits in the wake of its passing, and acknowledged a judge may issue an injunction against its enforcement.

More WMNF coverage of panhandling:

St. Pete: '2nd meanest city in the country for the homeless'

St. Pete moves to crack down on panhandlers

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We need to be more caring of the poor. Shelter and work is paramount. For those who can't work, at least shelter and food.