Hillsborough continues talk of countywide panhandling ban listen11/10/10 Kate Bradshaw
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With no relief for rampant unemployment and underemployment in the Tampa Bay area, many jobless and working poor take to curbsides and medians in the hope that enough passersby will spare a dollar or two. Many see it as a hazard, which is why Hillsborough County is considering revamping a countywide ban on the practice. Today Tampa and county officials held its second workshop to kick around possible ways of curbing the practice.
Assistant Tampa Police Chief John Bennett says a recent aggressive panhandling incident confirms his suspicion that things are coming to a head in the city.
"We had an aggressive arrest at 30th and Fowler where the panhandler started banging on the lady's window. and I tell you, you replace that scenario, everybody's threshold of danger is different. And we don't know where people will take that threshold and respond to those kinds of measures. And, of course, I think it will, unfortunately for timeline-wise, approaching the holidays and knowing that we see this influx of energy that we're afraid that something's going to pop there."
Tampa Chief of Staff Darrell Smith says the increased number of people standing on curbs, asking for money, is a public safety issue that could be remedied at the county level before itâ€™s too late.
"Panhandlers, solicitors, operating in the medians are a distraction. And we see it more and more because they're more visible but because there are more of them out there engaging in the activity so we think that it's essential to re-evaluate the situation in the city and our intent would be to work with the county and the other municipalities in the county to develop a uniform, standardized approach."
Panhandlers are highly visible in many parts of Tampa, but they are barred from roadsides in all other parts of the county. St. Pete passed an ordinance banning all roadside vending in June, including newspaper sales and charity drives. In Tampa they can solicit on curbs and medians if they wear a bright green vest. But that city is now considering a similar ban to St. Peteâ€™s. Tampa City Council member says itâ€™s a matter of public safety.
"Solicitors in traffic on medians and traffic islands are ticking time bombs waiting to go off when it comes to traffic safety."
The group also looked the ways cities like Key West, Jacksonville, and Sarasota have confronted panhandling, as well as the possibility of allowing it once a week. The agenda didnâ€™t allot any time for public comment, but Don Gore, a member of the homeless community, approaches the podium anyway.
"The only thing I wanted to say is y'all remember that the Supreme Court declared homeless people the right to associate on public property, city, county, and state property. They got that right."
Gore, is asked to sit down, and does. But when the committeeâ€™s agenda runs out early, Interim County Administrator Mike Merrill gives members of the public their say. Gore rails against a political system that has ignored the homeless.
"I'm one of the people, I'm one of the homeless. I grew up homeless and here in my old age I'm still homeless because of these politicians. You don't take care of our problems, you can't solve our problems. You can't do that because you are the problem."
Connie Farrington, Board Member and Volunteer Coordinator of I am Hope CafÃ© in Brandon, says the committee is wrong if it thinks it will solve anything by arresting panhandlers.
"The next time you see somebody out there panhandling, look over in the parking lot and see if there aren't some kids sitting in a car there. And they're waiting for dad to make a few bucks so they get to have dinner. That is exactly what we see every day. And if you really want to solve this problem then you'll come down with the little people like us and you'll find out what the real stats are. You'll find out what's really going on. You'll know exactly what we go through every single day to help these poor people."
She tells them that the real solution is transitional housing. Among those invited to participate were law enforcement officials, county attorneys, a member of the homeless coalition, and several city and county officials. Homeless advocate Mark Farrington says heâ€™s disappointed at who hasnâ€™t been invited to the table.
"This membership, and you're an august body, and you all have credentials and are well spoken, but nobody speaks for the homeless on this committee, nobody. Something wrong with that. I thought we learned last Tuesday (Election Day) when one group tends to speak for everybody that everybody suffers. So I would ask you to realistically look at adding to your commission. Somebody that's an advocate for the homeless because we don't have that."
While the coalition consists mostly of public officials, it is not currently charged with making any decisions. It plans on holding several more information gathering sessions in the coming months to help the county determine whether an all-out ban on panhandling is appropriate. As unemployment continues to soar, some homeless advocates wonder if local ordinances targeting the homeless are an attempt to sanitize the area ahead of major events like the 2012 Republican National Convention.