ST. PETERSBURG — Individuals and groups feeding the homeless in city parks can expect more restrictions in the coming months.
The City Council voted Thursday to have the legal staff come up with options to limit the public feedings, which are commonly blamed for drawing large numbers of homeless people downtown.
The 11th Circuit ruled this month that Orlando could restrict feeding homeless people in city parks without violating the First Amendment. St. Petersburg officials had awaited that decision to clarify how they could address public feedings downtown, including in Williams Park and in front of City Hall.
City rules require people who want to feed groups of 50 or more to get a permit, but that hasn't been enforced, partly because of the legal uncertainty of cases like the one in Orlando, said Mark Winn, the chief assistant city attorney.
Though council members agree that the Orlando decision gives the city legal cover to be more aggressive in restricting how the homeless are fed, Thursday's discussion showed a split on the board as to how quickly the city can enforce existing rules or draft new ones.
Council member Karl Nurse requested that city attorneys draft a new ordinance, but in doing so annoyed colleagues Leslie Curran and Jeff Danner, who have spent more time on committees dealing with the homeless issue. Danner and Curran were instrumental in getting Mayor Bill Foster to hire consultant Robert Marbut, who is drafting a broader strategy. It was Marbut's advice that convinced Foster and the council to help pay for the new Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter that opened in January.
Marbut has been working with the nonprofit groups that are doing many of the food giveaways. He's trying to get them to agree to do them elsewhere, or with agencies that provide shelters. Danner and Curran said they'd like to get the groups to cooperate first, then address the ones who don't at a later date. Drafting an ordinance that restricts them might send the wrong message and hinder Marbut's efforts, Danner said.
"If (Marbut's) working with groups, trying to get them to comply, then it's not going to help when they hear that the city is going to force it," he said. "You shove them into a defensive pose and they'll tell us, 'We won't talk to you.' "
Nurse didn't follow proper procedure because the topic hadn't been fully vetted by staff and committees, Curran said.
"The way you approached this is incorrect," Curran told Nurse. "Going ahead, throwing this on (the agenda), alerting the media that this is the way to go … you decided, unfortunately, that this is an emergency."
Nurse lashed back.
"I'm frankly baffled," he said. "We've talked about this for three years. … It's not very complicated. … There's a certain series of groups, no matter how much kumbaya we do, will continue to feed in the park until there's an ordinance. It's amazing to me that there's a question on whether we pass it."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org