Beggars banned, yet many still have hands out

Barbershop owner Art Verrill, here giving Anthony Paz a trim at the shop on Fourth Street N, across the street from Williams Park, said panhandlers remain a problem for him and his customers.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Barbershop owner Art Verrill, here giving Anthony Paz a trim at the shop on Fourth Street N, across the street from Williams Park, said panhandlers remain a problem for him and his customers.

Panhandling is banned outside Arthur Verrill's barbershop across the street from Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg. But Verrill's customers tell a different story.

"Ninety percent of folks say, 'Hey, I got panhandled five times just getting to your door,' " said the owner of Rockers barbershop on Fourth Street N.

Verrill is not alone. Nearly a year after the city included his street in a no-panhandling zone, where it's a misdemeanor to beg for money within the highly-traveled downtown corridors, many business owners say panhandlers are undeterred.

Although there are arrests, business owners say, panhandlers are soon back on their usual corners.

And there is often difficulty catching panhandlers because a police officer must see it taking place to make an arrest.

It was with business and tourism in mind that the city created the panhandling-free zone.

Business owners say they are frustrated that, zone or no zone, they and their customers are pestered by begging.

Police and city officials say they understand Verrill's frustration. They acknowledge that panhandling is difficult to control, and insist that the zone has led to an increased police focus on panhandling there.

"I think that we do a very good job of policing the area," said St. Petersburg police Maj. Melanie Bevan, who oversees the district that includes downtown.

Bevan said the police presence, including foot patrols, in the no-panhandling zone has not been reduced, despite complaints that it has. She added that as downtown has grown in recent years, the police have more foot traffic to contend with.

A major problem in the zone, she said, is that many offenders spend little time in jail before they are back on the streets.

"We try to do the best we can," Bevan said.

"There's a lot recidivism. You arrest somebody one day and they are back doing the same thing the next day."

At a recent City Council meeting, police officials touted the success of the no-panhandling zone even as they lamented that it appeared to be pushing violators into other parts of the city. The vicinity of Tyrone Square mall has been particularly affected, City Council member Herb Polson said.

The city's panhandling ordinance was first created in 1973. That ordinance, banning panhandling outright, would be unconstitutional today, said City Attorney John Wolfe. The latest ordinance bans "aggressive" panhandling anywhere in the city. That is defined as touching, blocking or threatening someone. Panhandling is also banned at city bus stops, 15 feet from ATMs, at sidewalk cafes or on private property.

Begging is also banned between dusk and dawn, a rule meant for public safety.

Wolfe said St. Petersburg's no-panhandling zone was created in the spirit of a 1999 federal court decision in Fort Lauderdale that found that cities can ban panhandling in order to protect their economies.

The downtown no-panhandling zone is bounded by First Avenue S to the south, Bayshore Drive and the Pier to the east, Sixth Street N to the west and Third Avenue N to the north.

At the August meeting, officials said there had been 27 arrests for panhandling, with 12 of those within the downtown zone, and 14 in other parts of town.

Yet as elected officials and the city ponder what to do about panhandling in other parts of the city — the City Council recently passed a ban on soliciting on traffic medians, which affects charities and newspaper sales as well as panhandlers — the problems downtown remain.

Lisa Murray, manager of Lonni's Sandwich shop in the 400 block of Central Avenue, said police patrolled the no-panhandling zone aggressively when the ban was first put into place. But lately, she said, police seem to be making the rounds much less often.

She suggests the police use surveillance cameras.

Across the board, city officials acknowledge the difficulty in battling panhandlers. It is impossible to have an all-out ban because that would almost certainly prompt First Amendment-based court challenges, Wolfe said.

The Rev. Bruce Wright, a local activist and frequent critic of efforts to police the homeless, said the city was already on a path toward such a lawsuit based on systematic harassment.

Elected officials acknowledge that panhandling is part of a bigger problem.

"We have to continue answering, 'why are people homeless?' " said Polson of the City Council.

But owners of businesses near Williams Park want quick relief.

"It's like Haight-Ashbury out here," said David Griffith, who owns Lightning Fast Jewelry on First Avenue N across from Williams Park.

At the fringes of the no-panhandling zone, in the area near Bayshore Drive, Baywalk and the Pier, the persistence of panhandlers may be a smaller problem, said Barry Rothstein, a marketing manager who is president of the Downtown Business Association.

Rothstein said members at a recent meeting voiced more concerns about the slumping economy than about beggars.

At Gilbert Jewelers, across First Avenue N from Williams Park, owner Ronald Gilbert said the slumping economy and panhandlers go hand in hand.

In Verrill's case, the situation around his shop has improved somewhat, he said, since a popular convenience store that sold beer and liquor a few storefronts down from him on Fourth Street N closed.

Still, Verill says he can see panhandlers more often than he sees police officers through the window of his shop.

"As a business owner," Verrill said, "you feel like these people have more rights than you do."

Luis Perez can be reached at LPerez@sptimes.com or 727-892-2271.

Beggars banned, yet many still have hands out 10/07/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 12, 2008 7:04pm]

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