Tampa City Council talks about panhandling, homeless issue
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09/08/11 Janelle Irwin
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Tampa City Council continued discussions about possible street solicitation bans that would criminalize panhandling on city streets. Council member Mary Mulhern warned that doing so would be the beginning of criminalizing poverty. The council also heard comments about how to address the high number of people without homes.

Council members have been kicking around whether or not to ban panhandling completely, partially or not at all. A partial ban would cover all forms of street solicitation 6-days a week with Sunday being the exception allowing vendors to continue newspaper sales. For many, the practice of what people call flying a sign is their only source of income. Donna Crider doesn’t have a place to live. She said she is afraid this ban would cause her and many others to fall through the cracks.

"They shouldn't ban it because there's a lot of people out their house, how we gonna get cash, you know? These people that they're talking about now that provide services and all that stuff, they don't provide cash. Cash is what makes the world go 'round, you know? That's not what I'm gonna say in my speech but you don't really want to know what I'm gonna say in my speech."

Marlon Anderson is the president of a Tampa homeowner’s association that voted to support a total ban. One of their reasons, he said, was to keep people safe.

"I can tell you right now just from my own personal experience, I almost ran over a panhandler. He was running across Westshore Boulevard against the light and I had to slam on my brakes to miss the guy. I didn't hit the guy but this will give you kind of an example that there is a safety issue there. So you know once again I'd just like to say that I don't think that when we, you know all these meetings, we have city planners and our city fathers that they contemplated we'd have every day people out on the streets soliciting and I don't think we should do that."

Other people who want panhandling outlawed say there are other resources available to the less fortunate. But many organizations that would help those in an economic hardship are facing their own budget deficits.

"There is a flagrant fallacy that there are services available from entities like DACCO or ACTS or Northside or MHC. We are really stripped right now of being able to provide additional services without some more help."

That was Mary-Lynn Ulrey, CEO of the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordination Office. She also said she supports efforts to develop a facility similar to Pinellas Safe Harbor in Largo. USF assistant research director Jason Wilson said a one-stop-shop type shelter would allow outreach agencies to use funds more wisely.

"It allows the different coalition partners of the homeless coalition there in Pinellas County to bring their resources to that location or to connect clients to providers in a more efficient way."

He says a program like Safe Harbor’s would reap even more benefits to the city if a panhandling ban is adopted. Wilson says the price of arresting someone who violates the ordinance would cost the city $126. The cost for housing someone for one night at the new shelter in Pinellas County is only $20. He said without enough shelters, many people who don’t have homes will have no where else to go but jail.

"If a street solicitation ordinance passes we don't really know where we're gonna take people who violate that ordinance. At the same time that brings up a bigger question of where are we gonna take people who don't have any other place to go to begin with."

Tampa resident and WMNF programmer Patricia Kemp said even though the city is addressing the possibility of creating an arrest diversion program in Tampa separately from the panhandling issue, the two are very much related.

"And they are not the same thing but they are related and I think of it like a venn diagram with overlapping circles. Several of the issues cross over, joblessness, low-paying jobs, lack of affordable housing in our community and yes substance abuse, lack of education and training job skills, transportation or lack thereof. The number one need right now in Hillsborough County is beds."

Meanwhile, Tampa’s neighbor is still tackling similar issues. At a St. Pete City Council meeting this morning, council member Leslie Curran joined a chorus of support for the council's recent ordinances on panhandling and sleeping in public places. Curran cautioned Tampa can't simply rely on Pinellas County's resources. She said she would be willing to work with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to develop a similar program in Hillsborough County.

Update: Tampa City Council voted 5-1 to move forward with the first reading of an ordinance that would ban panhandling and other forms of street solicitation 6-days a week, but allow it on Sundays. The ordinance being brought to the council for the first time on September 22nd will allow in-costume employees along roadsides as well as newspaper vendors or other types of sign wavers. Council member Mary Mulhern was the sole opposition to the proposed ordinance. She said she is worried such a ban would start a "slippery slope" of criminalizing poverty. She also said she isn't convinced the practice of panhandling is a direct safety threat.

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