HIllsborough County Takes on Panhandling

01/11/11 Sarah Curran
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St. Petersburg banned it, Tampa won't discuss it and Hillsborough County is still unsure about what to do with Panhandlers. Yesterday a County Panhandling Committee met for the last time, in an attempt to come up with some ideas on how the area can tackle the roadside sellers and beggars.

Yesterday's meeting gave the public a chance to hear about the organizations that panhandle for good causes. director of business development for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Susie Austin, says some organizations rely on street soliciting to keep them afloat.

“One of our signature events is fill the boot with the International Association of Firefighters. Last year across the nation they raised $28 million passing the boot. If we had cities and counties across the nation follow suit and ban street solicitation it would cripple our organization.”

She adds last year Hillsborough County firefighters raised over $65,000. And they aren't alone. Jim Lake is a Lawyer for the Tampa Tribune. He says in these hard economic times some people rely on panhandling more than ever.

“The Tribune sells newspapers to independent contractors who go out on Sundays and sell them to motorists. And we think that is a legitimate way for folks to earn a living, earn a little extra money, and they have done it on the streets of Tampa for years. And we are hopeful this task force can recognize it can be done safely and without any real problems arising from it.”

Both Austin and Lake are hoping Hillsborough county enacts tougher sanctions versus banning Panhandling altogether.

“Tampa already has some safety regulations and we have no problem with some of those being increased and tightened in some ways. There’s nothing in the ordinance right now for example that says you aren’t allowed to touch a vehicle if you are approaching a car. There is nothing in the ordinance that says specifically people that are intoxicated can’t be out there. Those are both safety features that can be added and address some of the issues the task force is talking about."

“Having anybody that does street solicitation would have to go through a safety course and get a certificate, a little card kind of like a drivers license saying that they passed it and when they are out there they have to have that on there person.”

However tougher safety regulations and training courses all cost the county money. More money than it can afford to spend. At Yesterday's meeting County Administrator Mike Merrill told the committee Sarasota County's recent ban on street soliciting is costing the county $3 million. The money goes towards finding alternative incarceration methods for those caught on the streets. And even though officials have yet to acquire statistics on St. Petersburg's newly-forced ban, Committee members where skeptical about city officials claims of success until they learn the numbers. Along with cost, safety is another concern.

“Its not just the panhandling that brings dangers to the county its anyone that gets out in the flow of traffic could be a potential hazard and could get themselves or someone else hurt.”

Hillsborough County Major J. R. Burton wasn't the only policeman at the meeting with safety concerns. He says even if the county creates tougher regulations, proper training for legal roadside solicitors would be timely and costly. Both Susie Austin and Jim Lake claim no serious injuries have occurred during Fill The boot drives or Sunday paper sales. However, Committee member and County Attorney Renee Lee says the issue of panhandling is more than just about cost

“This is a deeply routed social issues. Panhandling is many times fueled by homelessness, drug addiction other kinds of issues that force people to be chronically unemployed and therefore seeking money out on the corners by panhandling. So it is a money issues when you talk about it, but when you look deeper it’s a deep social issue and we have to address some of the those to completely eradicate panhandling.”

This was the committee's last meeting and Members hope to have recommendations available for the County Commission by February 2.

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