NEW PORT RICHEY — James Gosselin leaned on the lectern and looked around the courtroom. His hair was matted and he wore a baggy brown sweatshirt to his status hearing in 22 cases of panhandling outside the parameters of Pasco County ordinances. The judge asked him for a plea, but Gosselin wanted to make a point first.
"You can only be homeless on Sunday," he told Judge Frank Grey, referring to the section of the ordinance that allows streetside soliciting that one day of the week. "I'm homeless Monday through Saturday, too."
In 2011, the County Commission passed an ordinance to ban panhandling on road shoulders and in medians. Among other reasons, the ordinance states that the transactions were dangerous to motorists and pedestrians. It made rules for those who still wanted to sell their wares to passing cars or plead for monetary sympathy with Sharpie words on cardboard. Those by the roadside would have to sport neon-yellow vests and carry identification on them. They could do this only during daylight hours and only on Sunday.
Some didn't obey, and the ordinance had language for that, too. Citations were punishable by a fine. Continuing after that would mean arrest.
But the county had no power to prosecute those arrested because there aren't any available funds to appoint a public defender to the cases, as the law mandates.
Kristi Sims, senior assistant county attorney, said violators would shred their citations in front of deputies, skip their court dates and refuse to do public service assigned to them. Without the threat of jail time, she says, the county had no leverage to enforce the ordinance.
Last week, she went before the County Commission to ask that money be allocated to send violators to jail.
Pasco commissioners so far back the idea of putting panhandlers in jail, citing frustrated business owners and saying it might be safer to lock up the panhandlers, at least temporarily, than see them continually wandering between cars.
"I think it's a detriment to the area," Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said, adding he hears "constantly" from constituents about how the homeless are tarnishing Pasco's image. "It's a quality-of-life issue."
Mariano said commissioners could vote on the get-tough measure as soon as the next commission meeting.
The problem has so far proven vexing. A combination of economic and social problems has contributed to a burgeoning population of homeless. Meanwhile, county resources to tackle the problem — seven shelters run mostly by churches — are limited.
Last year, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a $1.3 million line item in the state budget that would have funded transitional housing run by Metropolitan Ministries for families in need.
On a daily basis, scores of street people can be seen wandering U.S. 19 or living in tents and cars.
With about 4,500 homeless men, women and children, Pasco ranks behind only Hillsborough in the total number of homeless statewide, according to a twice-yearly headcount released last year.
"I worry about the homeless. We need to do something," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who added that she backs jail time for some hardened panhandlers.
"It's unsafe and I think if we become a community that doesn't prosecute panhandlers then you attract more of them," added Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.
Mulieri suggested a six-month program that can be evaluated at the end. The mere threat of jail time might prove to be a deterrent.
"Sometimes if something doesn't work you need a hammer," she said.
Sheriff Chris Nocco suggested in a letter to Mariano that fines accrued through the county's synthetic marijuana ban — about $40,000 — could be used to help pay for representation for the panhandling violators. Sims has looked to St. Petersburg, which contracts public defenders at $50 an hour.
But Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said panhandling ordinance violations aren't a problem in the city anymore since Pinellas County spent money on Safe Harbor, a shelter that provides services to help homeless people find jobs and become self-sustaining.
Since the homeless shelter was built, he said, the city cut its ordinance violation arrests in half. He doesn't like the idea of jailing panhandlers.
"It's the most expensive and least effective way that the county can address the homeless situation," Dillinger said. "Locking up homeless people doesn't cure the problem at all."
He accused Nocco of supporting the enforcement as a way of boosting inmate numbers to get more jail funding.
"The sheriff wants a new jail," he said. "For the sheriff to support this means he knows there's going to be a lot of people arrested."
Nocco was taken aback.
"It's a shame that people are trying to use misdirection about the jail," he said. "Our citizens have clearly demonstrated to the commission that they want enforcement on the panhandling issue. I would love if the public defender would put as much effort in Pasco as they have in Pinellas on the homeless issue."
The next commission meeting is Feb. 11. Dillinger said he plans to attend.