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St. Petersburg explores stricter panhandling laws

ST. PETERSBURG — A proposed ordinance that would ban street vending and panhandling in roadways is getting enthusiastic support from council members.

During a morning meeting Thursday at City Hall, council members said their constituents want to restrict the growing number of panhandlers who have been migrating deeper into neighborhoods.

"(Panhandling) is not relegated to one area," said Herb Polson. "It's proliferated throughout our city. It's growing. We really need to do something."

City Attorney John Wolfe drafted an ordinance that would ban collecting money from motorists and distributing material to them, such as newspapers or fliers. Wolfe wrote the ordinance to include newspaper vendors and fundraising efforts because making exceptions would make the measure more vulnerable to legal challenges.

"If you have exceptions based on content of the speech, you have a constitutional problem," Wolfe told council members.

Council members will set a public hearing for the ordinance at next Thursday's meeting. The next hearing would be in June.

Wolfe is modeling the law after one in Sarasota. He doesn't want to draft an ordinance that might cost the city in a legal battle if it's found unconstitutional. A batch of ordinances that restrict behaviors associated with the homeless — such as sleeping in public — was recently upheld in federal court, but advocacy groups are appealing.

The city has struggled with how to deal with its homeless population for generations. In 1946, the City Council enacted a law that made it illegal for anyone to be in the city who had "no visible means of support, or who lives idly, without lawful employment, or who wanders about the streets or other public places … who does not have a known place of residence or abode, or who is found begging."

The punishment was $500 or 90 days in jail.

"Blatantly unconstitutional," is what Wolfe calls that now defunct law, which he said was either struck down or rewritten when a similar law in another locale was struck down.

While council members say they understand Wolfe's concerns, they can't ignore complaints from neighborhood leaders. During the past few months, the council has been pressuring Wolfe to bring them tougher panhandling restrictions, even though the council last year banned soliciting for money while standing in road medians.

This latest action would go further, banning it from street corners, the next step in addressing a worsening problem, said council member Jeff Danner.

"My neighborhoods are anxious for this to happen," he said. "At Fifth Avenue N and 20th Street, there's typically 12 people begging for money."

The ordinance is sure to be opposed by the fire union, which conducts boot drives from the street. The St. Petersburg Times opposed a similar proposed ordinance in 2004.

Council member Bill Dudley, who was elected last year with the help of the fire union, voted against it Thursday.

"If we do what they did in Sarasota, we will have just have eliminated the (firefighter's Muscular Dystrophy campaign drive)," Dudley said. "We can be strict. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water."

But other council members said vendors and solicitors will have to adjust.

"It's that darn Constitution," said Karl Nurse. "You can't say, 'Except for the firefighters.' That's just unconstitutional. The firefighters have to set their buckets in front of the grocery stores and the malls like the Salvation Army. That's not a big deal at all."

Sherry Yagovane, executive director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, says nationally, boot campaigns raised $28 million last year. If every city passed an ordinance like the one in Sarasota that St. Petersburg is now considering, contributions would plummet.

She said the new rule would force firefighters to stand in front of stores to raise the money, but only if the owners agree. Also, she said contributions at storefronts tend to be about a third of the sum they can raise in the streets.

"We can't afford to sit and watch this happen," Yagovane said.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg explores stricter panhandling laws 05/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 12:09am]

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