Advocates for homeless oppose spread of anti-panhandling rules in Pinellas

Alarmed by more and more rules against panhandling, members of the Pinellas County agency that seeks to eradicate homelessness in a decade want to take a stand — and stop them.

Days before they met Friday, Tarpons Springs became the latest city in Pinellas to expand rules against solicitation.

And the city's acting police chief went further: He suggested that repeat violators be turned away from a soup kitchen.

Friday, G.W. Rolle, an advocate for homeless people on the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Network, asked the group to tell cities to put a moratorium on their anti-solicitation rules.

"I really feel that the answer is not criminalizing (homelessness) but providing options," he said.

Raine Johns of the Public Defender's Office told other board members he agreed and "would not want to see anything weaker coming out of this group."

The organization's official stance will be negotiated in an executive committee and brought to the full board for a vote. The network consists of local officials and advocates from throughout the county.

For municipalities, it's not about criminalizing homelessness, but ensuring safety.

"Homelessness is not a crime," Robert Kochen, Tarpon Springs acting police chief, said in an interview Friday.

"Panhandling and committing nuisance violations, that's the crime. Either we can continue to go down the path of violating the laws of our city or you can get help and that's what we really want to do — get people help."

As an example, Kochen noted a homeless man in Tarpon who, in 2008 and 2009, had approximately 50 police contacts that led to 10 police reports, seven arrests and nine trespass warnings.

"We have to protect people and enforce the law," Kochen said.

In December, then mayor-elect of St. Petersburg Bill Foster pledged to strengthen and enforce no-panhandling laws. He said he would expand regulations that limit commerce on public walkways and strictly enforce loitering ordinances.

Clearwater has had an anti-solicitation ordinance for several years, and is tweaking it.

Sarah Snyder, the homeless network's executive director, says she realizes the tough position cities are in. But part of the organization's 10-year plan is to work with governments to discourage such laws.

"The street homeless have few places to go and do not have access to ongoing shelter, sanitary services or indoor food services," Snyder wrote in a memo.

A lack of public bathrooms is a major issue. At St. Petersburg's Williams Park, for instance, the bathrooms are locked at 9:30 p.m. and reopen at 7 a.m.

With no place to use the bathroom, homeless people near there often violate laws against public urination.

The Rev. Bruce Wright, an advocate for the homeless, attended Friday's meeting. He wants the network to take a strong stance.

"Law enforcement should not have any say on whether someone gets shelter, gets food or any other service," Wright said.

But Rick Butler, a Pinellas Park City Council member, said no one has a right to panhandle.

"Is it a taxable income?" Butler asked. "We are giving it credence as if it is."

Advocates for homeless oppose spread of anti-panhandling rules in Pinellas 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 10:51pm]

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