ST. PETERSBURG — Even as the city defends one of its homeless ordinances in federal court, council leaders said Thursday they would consider imposing tighter restrictions on panhandling, a crackdown that could provoke another lawsuit.
"We have to do something more effective than what we do now," said council member Jim Kennedy. "Our citizens are demanding it."
Council members said they have been besieged with complaints from residents about the rise of panhandling in neighborhoods, especially ones adjacent to downtown, such as Central Oak Park.
"This isn't just people standing on the street corner holding a sign," said Barbara Heck, former president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. "They're knocking on doors and getting in people's faces."
An ordinance that the council passed in 2008 has contributed to this perceived influx, she said. It banned panhandling near downtown's popular destinations, but, in the process, helped push the activity to other places.
She and council member Jeff Danner, who helped pass that ordinance, said they would favor expanding the prohibition citywide.
"If we don't, then all we do is shove it into the neighborhoods," Danner said.
As usual on this issue, the City Council is looking to legal counsel to provide relief, even though many of their complaints are about lax enforcement.
For instance, council member Herb Polson complained about seeing a panhandler on a median.
It's already illegal to stand in the roadway to solicit money. And the city doesn't allow people to stand in medians.
"Call the police next time you see that," said City Attorney John Wolfe.
Wolfe already is worried about defending the existing panhandling ordinance. He said that the Southern Legal Counsel has filed public record requests for information related to it.
That's the same group that has sued the city in federal court over three ordinances that restrict behaviors associated with homelessness, such as public urination and sleeping on sidewalks. That case is ongoing, though a judge has upheld most of the city's rules so far.
City attorneys were asked Thursday to draft a report that analyzes how to prevent soliciting from the curb. Wolfe said if council members want to ban panhandling from the curb, they'd have to forbid other activities, such as selling newspapers and raising money for charities, like the firefighters' "boot campaigns."
Expanding an anti-soliciting ordinance is problematic because it would make it illegal for all types of solicitations.
"Panhandling is considered a First Amendment right," Wolfe said. "You can't single it out. If we ban it, then it's no political solicitations, no newspapers, no nothing."
Council members, however, expressed frustration with Wolfe's caution, saying they believed his office seemed too reluctant in drafting a tougher panhandling ordinance.
"I'm frustrated," Kennedy told Wolfe. "It's time to make some tough choices."
But Wolfe told the council that he's concerned about potential legal challenges to a tougher ordinance. He mentioned a case that the city of Fresno, Calif., lost last year. It was sued for cleaning up the streets and throwing away the possessions of homeless people. It had to pay $2.3 million in legal fees.
"This is what you're looking at if you ban it," Wolfe said. "Be prepared."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.