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Begging for change

Along with the tourists drawn by revitalization efforts to Clearwater Beach and downtown, city officials are also anticipating an influx of panhandlers and beggars.

Now they're taking steps to prevent that.

"What we typically find is that people are going out to enjoy themselves at Pier 60 (on the beach) and they're approached by transients," said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne. "And the question is, is that really the kind of environment we want out there for our tourists?"

The city attorney's office is working on a panhandling ordinance that targets tourist areas, including the beach and the downtown core. The new ordinance will augment a 1997 code that outlaws "aggressive" begging, panhandling that causes someone to "fear for their person or property citywide."

This code, also called "begging by intimidation," carries an $88 fine.

The new law will target anyone who verbally seeks money on public property. It will also affect charitable and religious donations.

However, it will not affect "passive" solicitation, such as someone holding up a sign — as long as they don't approach anyone — or playing a guitar and leaving a hat for people to drop money in. It also won't affect direct mail or a Salvation Army bell ringer.

• • •

On the beach, reaction to the proposal was as expected. Visitors applauded the city's efforts. Panhandlers hated it.

Two St. Petersburg College students who were having a beer at the Mandalay Grill said they've often been approached by beggars.

"It's everywhere," said Matt Flanders, 23. "They realize that they can sit on the beach, look at ladies, scrounge up a few bucks, get drunk, pass out and do it all over again the next day."

His friend, Jeff Korth, also 23, agreed, saying the ordinance is "a good idea" that should have been done earlier.

Just a few blocks north, David Pimental, 48, and Eric Hinkle, 52, disagreed.

Hanging out with two other friends and splitting a 12-pack of Natural Ice beer at a Mandalay Avenue bus stop, Pimental said the city should be concerned with more serious crime. Hinkle then asked a St. Petersburg Times reporter "to slip me a five-spot."

When he was turned down, Hinkle, smelling of alcohol, cursed loudly.

"I don't give a (expletive) about what the city does," he said, referring to the proposed ordinance.

Seconds later, Hinkle stumbled over his bicycle and fell onto the street.

City leaders say that's the kind of behavior they're trying to prevent.

"That's exactly the kind of thing we don't want our tourists subjected to — that's unacceptable," City Council member Paul Gibson said. "That's an example of where the panhandling ordinance should be used."

Mayor Frank Hibbard agreed, but questioned whether such an ordinance will work. He said if homeless people are cited, they won't have much incentive to go to court. He also said he didn't want them locked up.

Other city officials, though, say the ordinance may prompt the homeless to seek help at local shelters.

Information about how many panhandlers were cited last year for aggressive panhandling was not supplied by the city's police department by press time.

Crafting an ordinance

is a delicate balance

Clearwater officials want to model their ordinance on St. Petersburg's, which is similar to one in Indianapolis. Both have stood up to lawsuits that contend they violate free speech.

Crafting these ordinances is difficult because they can't be overly broad, and officials can't automatically ban all forms of soliciting citywide because it could violate First Amendment protections. But they can ban soliciting in certain areas or set aside times when someone cannot beg.

Governments also can't pass panhandling ordinances that target "annoyances," said Clearwater assistant city attorney Rob Surette, who is drafting the ordinance.

The regulations must be tailored to serve a significant government interest, such as public safety, the free flow of traffic or "maintaining a safe, aesthetic, pleasing environment in which recreational activities can be maximized."

In addition, the ordinance must provide alternative ways of communication, so that someone can still solicit without being overly aggressive.

For example, in St. Petersburg, a guitar player can leave a hat nearby so people can drop money into it. They can play and accept money, but they can't actually ask for money.

City officials say the ordinance could be ready for review within a few months.

Begging for change 03/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2008 3:03pm]
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