ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral hopeful Deveron Gibbons' vow to crack down on panhandlers drew a roar of applause last month from a crowd crammed into the Walter Fuller Recreation Center.
"As mayor, I can guarantee you we won't have that issue," he said to the more than 100 people gathered for a candidate forum hosted by the Jungle Terrace Civic Association. "I am not going to have anybody who doesn't pay taxes more comfortable in our community than people who do pay taxes."
In many ways, Gibbons' pledge to rid the city of unpopular street beggars is the most ambitious campaign promise made by one of the 10 mayoral candidates to date.
With the local unemployment rate teetering near 11 percent and an ever-growing homeless street population — up 83 percent in Pinellas County since 2007 — the issue of area panhandlers has been thrust into the public debate like never before.
The City Council has held meeting after meeting to brainstorm potential solutions. Business owners and downtown residents have flooded City Hall with complaints. At candidate forums across the city, it's one of the few recurring questions: What will you do about panhandlers?
Along with Gibbons, candidates Kathleen Ford, Bill Foster, Jamie Bennett, John Warren and Larry Williams said they will direct the city's legal staff to expand St. Petersburg's controversial no-panhandling zones. Candidate Scott Wagman, meanwhile, said he would aggressively enforce the anti-panhandling laws currently in place.
The promises earn applause during campaign forums. But law enforcement and legal experts are skeptical. How do you eradicate an enterprise older than government itself?
Enforcement is difficult because police must catch perpetrators in action.
"It's kind of hit or miss," said Sgt. Jim Alese, who supervises the city's downtown deployment team. "They don't usually do it when we are around."
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Aggressive panhandling, defined as touching, blocking or threatening someone, has been illegal anywhere in St. Petersburg for nearly a decade.
Panhandling is also banned at city bus stops, 15 feet from ATMs, at sidewalk cafes, on private property or between dusk and dawn.
In recent years, City Hall took more aggressive steps.
Officials launched an education campaign last year to urge people to give directly to social service agencies. They expanded the city's no-panhandling zone throughout most of downtown to protect tourism. The council also banned soliciting from public medians.
The Police Department launched weekly undercover raids downtown.
The City Council asked the city's legal department to go even further: ban public feeding of the homeless, ban panhandling everywhere downtown, ban panhandling at interstate exits.
"We didn't feel comfortable with it," said City Attorney John Wolfe. "It involves the First Amendment and balancing a person's First Amendment rights against the rights of the rest of the population."
In May, six homeless people backed by a handful of advocacy organizations filed a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the city's efforts against the homeless.
Last month, St. Petersburg was named the second-meanest city in the country by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
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St. Petersburg is ground zero for the homeless in Pinellas County. The city's homeless represent nearly 50 percent of the 6,000 in Pinellas County. More than 200 of them live downtown.
"This is an issue that all downtown communities deal with," said Elaine Smalling, vice president for the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. "It's a difficult problem to get a handle on. You can create solutions, but it just moves the problem."
Critics argue panhandlers make St. Petersburg less attractive.
They beg sidewalk diners for change, interrupting romantic meals or business deals. They stump at highway off-ramps, waving sides that read like medical charts: "wounded veteran," "cancer survivor" or "handicapped."
The candidates tell stories: Fearful elderly women vowing never to return downtown after being yelled at by panhandlers. Condominium investors backing out of deals because of the vagrants on Central Avenue. Restaurants losing customers.
"It truly threatens the growth, prosperity and viability of our downtown," said Wagman, a real estate investor.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.