Tampa City Council hears grim homelessness stats, skirts panhandling discussion

02/24/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Tampa City Council may have tabled a controversial proposal to ban panhandling, but the debate has spurred discussion on what causes people to ask for money on street corners. Today the council got a pretty dire picture of homelessness and poverty throughout the city.

Those expecting a spar over panhandling at the city council workshop may have been disappointed. Today, the council sought stats on the homeless and impoverished population as well as things like the number of beds available on any given night – and what they heard wasn’t pretty. Rayme Nuckles, CEO of the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition, said there aren’t nearly enough beds available for everyone with no place to go.

Nuckles said a 2009 homeless count found that some 10,000 homeless people in Hillsborough County. The coalition is still tabulating numbers from a similar survey it conducted weeks ago, and this will be the first time the survey included a question about panhandling. He said the 2009 count found that there are six to eight people for every bed the coalition offers.

Nuckles said there’s a myth that people from up north flock to the Tampa Bay area to be homeless in the sunshine, but that statistics tell a far different story.

Steve Vick, General Manager for Salvation Army of Hillsborough County, said homeless shelters provide beds for a surprisingly diverse range of people.

As the crippled economy has made it tougher for many to get by, it has also put a strain on the charities that help the poor and homeless. Many nonprofits rely on donations and government grants for funding, but both resources are drying up. Vick said he’s worked for the Salvation Army for 25 years, and he’s never seen such a drop in donations.

Tampa Housing Authority CEO Jerome Ryan said the chance of government funding staying put is also looking pretty grim.

The issue of panhandling was not the discussion centerpiece, but some questioned its connection with homelessness. Officials from local homeless shelters stressed that they discourage the practice of panhandling. Ryan said a lot of the people he sees panhandling don’t appear homeless.

The council took no action today. At the suggestion of a member of the public who urged the council to ban panhandling, Council Member Yvonne Capin suggested a temporary ban on weekdays so the city could study its effects but no one seconded her motion. Council Chair Thomas Scott, who is running for mayor, said such a vote wouldn’t be appropriate, given the meeting was intended to address homelessness, not panhandling.

There doesn’t appear to be a new panhandling ban proposal on Tampa’s horizon as of yet, but the county plans to take up the issue at a March 30 meeting. As for today’s meeting on the overarching issues of homelessness and poverty, Council Chair Scott said the city has its work cut out for itself.

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