Tampa City Council tightens restrictions on homeless
Tampa City Council approved two ordinances Thursday that will tighten restrictions on the city’s homeless population. The decisions make it illegal to panhandle anywhere in downtown and some outlying areas restrict where people can sleep and congregate as well. A handful of homeless individuals, including Corey Williams, pleaded with council members to reject the measures.
“A lot of people automatically assume that if one’s homeless they’re either an alcoholic or a drug addict or if you simply speak to them, they’re trying to panhandle. And for some people, that’s not the case. From the statistics I found, 18 million people are a paycheck away from being homeless. So, anybody from a CEO to a janitor, in the blink of an eye could lose it all. So, my thing is this – I understand about the parking thing, people don’t feel safe, but I believe if a person is acting in a civil manner, keeping to themselves, being a law abiding citizen, not violating anybody, being peaceful, that they shouldn’t be criminalized for that.”
The panhandling restriction bans soliciting in downtown Tampa, Ybor City and parts of West Tampa. It passed 6-1 with only Mary Mulhern voting against it. The ordinance also applies to bus or trolley stops, sidewalk cafes and anywhere within 15-feet of a financial institution throughout Tampa. The city already has a ban on roadside and intersection panhandling making exceptions for newspaper vendors. Steve Sapp is the publisher of Tampa Epoch, the community newspaper created to give the homeless community a way to earn money by selling papers that's legal under the panhandling law. He spoke against both the solicitation restrictions and the ban on public sleeping.
“And then once they get out from being incarcerated, once again, there’s no options. So, they just get back into that system once again. They don’t wake up from being incarcerated and suddenly develop job skills and a new place to stay.”
That ordinance prohibits sleeping in public spaces like sidewalks and parks and bans public urination and defecation. People found violating the ordinance would be given the option of either going to a shelter or to jail.
“No matter how you want to – call this ordinance by any other name, it is criminalizing homelessness – that is the ultimate effect of this ordinance.”
That’s Yvette Acosta MacMillan, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. She reminded city council members as well as two Tampa Police Officers who attended the meeting that the city doesn’t have enough beds to accommodate everyone in need. Officers countered that there are beds that go unused, but she said once more police are trained to remove people from the streets, the beds will fill up. But that wasn’t the only part of the ordinance MacMillan took issue with.
“There are several provisions in the ordinance that are very disconcerting. For example, requiring homeless people to have IDs. Homeless people don’t have IDs, it costs money to get an ID. If they don’t have an ID, they can get arrested.”
Opponents asked council to consider alternatives such as increasing homeless services like mental health care, housing and job assistance. City Council member Mary Mulhern brought up another issue: according to the ordinance, a person can be taken to a shelter by police three times before being arrested, that’s up from the zero-tolerance language when the ordinance was first introduced. But what about during the day when shelters are closed? Officer Dan McDonald with the Tampa Police Department answered.
“There is already an existing drop-in center, it’s called The Shop at 6220 North Nebraska and they have laundry facilities, computers, telephones, mental health screening and that’s open – I believe – from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.”
“How many seats are there for people there?”
“I’d say it’s about the size of this room, maybe a little bigger. So, they could accommodate maybe 100 people.”
Mulhern voted against the ordinance along with Yolie Capin and Frank Reddick who all favored delaying a decision. In order to find some solutions to another provision in the ordinance that outlaws placing items in public places, Reddick made a motion to delay a vote for 90-days. The motion failed 4-3. Mulhern lamented that the city has not followed through with a list of priorities from 2011 when the roadside panhandling ban was passed.
“So, we have no commitment from the City of Tampa to do anything other than arrest these people.”
And Capin, who has been regularly asking for updates on how the community is improving the situation for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, suggested looking to other cities for answers.
“In Miami, there was a court case – Peddinger vs. the City of Miami – and a settlement agreement came February, 2009. What they did, is they set aside areas in the city of Miami where people that were homeless and they supplied restrooms and made sure that because they were in that area, they could find them, they could help them, they were all in one area – or two.”
Nine people spoke against the ordinances. Three were in favor of approving them. Jeff Zampitella is the president of the Skypoint condo association in downtown Tampa.
“We have 761 registered residents in our building and one of the biggest complaints that we hear over and over as to why our residents are not patronizing the Franklin retail and other surrounding businesses are because of the homeless in the area and the aggressive homeless.”
According to an amended version of the public sleeping ordinance, if no beds are available, a person cannot be arrested for sleeping in a public space. Individuals who refuse shelter and are arrested can do so three times before they are no longer given the option.
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