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Compared to larger problem of homelessness, Tampa's panhandling ban was easy

TAMPA — It took a year of debate, a half-dozen attempts, two different city administrations and a last-minute appearance by a still-recuperating Charlie Miranda.

But the Tampa City Council finally gave its initial approval to a partial ban on panhandling last week.

That was the easy part.

The hard part will be taking meaningful steps to address the larger problem of homelessness in Hillsborough County.

Still, that work has begun.

"I think all of us are committed to exploring what our options are and what our responsibilities could be," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

Late last month, Buckhorn met with County Commissioner Sandra Murman, County Administrator Mike Merrill and Tod Leiweke, chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to discuss the possibilities.

Leiweke especially brings useful perspective, the mayor said. In Seattle, where he was CEO of the Seattle Seahawks, he chaired a 2008-09 United Way campaign that raised more than $100 million to help fight family homelessness.

"A key to this is getting the business community involved," Buckhorn said. "Government doesn't have all the answers, and we sure don't have all the resources."

This, of course, is far from the first attempt to address homelessness. Nonprofit groups like the Homeless Coalition, Metropolitan Ministries and the Salvation Army have worked on the problem for decades. More recently, a citizens task force came together for a new look at the issue.

But Murman met with Leiweke and others again on Friday to discuss bringing together a single group of both public and private participants. In six to eight weeks, she hopes this group could develop an action plan for the next six to 12 months.

"We've just talked about it for so long," she said, "and we don't think this is an insurmountable goal."

• • •

In giving their initial approval to a six-day-per-week ban on most roadside solicitation, City Council members said making something illegal will not address the larger problem.

"You don't want to see poor people on the street?" council member Mary Mulhern said. "Help us find a solution."

Last month, the City Council endorsed the recommendation of a citizens' task force on homelessness to create a shelter and assessment facility modeled on Pinellas County's Safe Harbor shelter.

Safe Harbor provides social services and mental and physical health care, along with housing — all of which cost less than incarcerating or hospitalizing the homeless, said Dr. Jason Wilson, a member of the task force.

Since outlining its recommendations to the City Council last month, the task force has expanded its contacts with the faith-based community and county officials, Wilson said.

Wilson said he and School Board member Candy Olson also are going to work with Murman with a goal of finding a facility that accommodates people with mental problems who commit misdemeanors as well as homeless people who commit minor crimes. And he and Mulhern plan to meet with the Public Defender's Office this week to identify existing programs that might help.

The council's vote on the panhandling ban "increases the urgency for the citizen task force to make progress on finding a facility for use as a 'one-stop shop' center," Wilson said in an e-mail to the Times.

"We need places to put people who violate the ordinance other than jail," he said. Also, with the passage of a ban, the issue could lose the public's attention.

• • •

In Pinellas, Safe Harbor is meant to better serve the chronically homeless, keep them out of jail and help them redirect their lives.

Located inside a former bus building, the short-term shelter is managed by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, though it receives support from St. Petersburg, smaller Pinellas cities, county government and nonprofit groups.

Soon after it opened in January, Safe Harbor became Pinellas County's largest shelter, serving an average of more than 300 people a day, then 400 a day.

There's also an older, longer-term shelter, Pinellas Hope, where about 1,000 people a year stay in tents for an average of about 90 days before they are placed in jobs or find permanent housing. Catholic Charities runs that shelter.

But it's not clear yet whether Tampa or Hillsborough has the same resources and opportunities.

Wilson and Mulhern recently met with Sheriff David Gee to see whether spare bunks at the Orient Road Jail could be converted into a Safe Harbor-style facility.

While Gee supports the idea of local government addressing the issue, Orient Road wouldn't work, sheriff's Col. Greg Brown said. Even with some vacancies, it's still a jail. It houses some inmates, has a clinic, central booking and inmate release operations, among other things.

That means jailers have to run it according to state statutes that ban contraband. That doesn't only include drugs and weapons, but also civilian clothing, medication, even asthma inhalers.

Other complications: Jails can't house men and women together, or adults and children, so families would have to be split up. Nor can the detention deputies let people come and go anytime.

"Our legal unit has reviewed it and said there's absolutely no way you can use that jail to do this," Brown said.

Buckhorn said the city already was doing an inventory of property it owns, and he has asked his staff to determine whether it has an available building that's big enough and suitable for a service center. Early indications are probably not, he said.

Buckhorn said he expects Tampa and Hillsborough leaders to look at Safe Harbor as a model, though it's possible they could end up with a hybrid approach.

A critical element, though, is housing.

"You can't help folks find a job if they have no residence," he said.

Compared to larger problem of homelessness, Tampa's panhandling ban was easy 10/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 6:05pm]
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