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St. Petersburg's panhandling ban underscores city's economic divide

ST. PETERSBURG — It's been more than a week since the City Council banned street solicitors, and it's still the talk of the town. "We've heard more on this issue than any other," council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said Thursday after a federal judge ruled that the ban could be enforced Sunday on the city's busiest streets. The parent company of the St. Petersburg Times sued the city, alleging that the ban on hawking newspapers at intersections violates its constitutional right to free speech. The lawsuit angered residents who support the ban. Whether the ban will make the city less attractive to panhandlers is uncertain. But the issue has exposed an economic divide between those who rely on the kindness of strangers for their livelihoods and homeowners, especially those in neighborhoods northwest of Central Avenue and Interstate 275 that are near social services and busy streets where vendors sell papers. As the ban loomed, residents and panhandlers last week shared their opposing views on one of the most divisive issues in recent city memory.

James Zawislak, 38, panhandler

His sign says it all. Why lie! I need a beer!

Zawislak says motorists at Fifth Avenue N and 34th Street smile when they see the sign he shares with two other homeless friends. They can raise $150 a day with the sign, which he then spends on getting drunk on Hurricane High Gravity, a beer with an alcohol content of 8.1 percent.

"It'll get you messed up," Zawislak said. "I'm on 10 of them right now, and you can't tell, can you?"

Slumped on a crutch he needs to get around because he broke his left foot jumping a fence, Zawislak said he can't get hired for any job. A former waiter and bartender, Zawislak said he always lived paycheck to paycheck. When the economy tanked, he had no savings to fall back on.

Now he lives in and out of alcohol rehabilitation centers when he's not begging for money to drink.

"It's on me," Zawislak said. "I became a drunk. I'm very embarrassed about being out here. It's very degrading."

He said when the ban is enforced on Sunday, he'll probably head for Tampa. "They're running us out of here," he said. "They're getting what they want."

Steve Holland, 62, panhandler

Like many homeless, Holland blames himself for his situation. Born and raised in various small towns in Maryland, Holland was happily married with a good job in the state's park system 20 years ago. But after his wife of 20 years, Diane, died of cancer in 1997, his life took a bad turn.

A remarriage ended quickly. He battles clinical depression.

He moved to St. Petersburg two years ago to be close to his mom, who's in her 80s.

"At 60, that's no time to live with your mom," said Holland, who sleeps at a shelter.

During the day, he stands at Fourth Avenue N and Fifth Street N holding a crumpled piece of cardboard: Homeless anything helps. Thank you. God Bless.

He said he makes $40 to $50 on good days. On bad days, as little as $3.

He says he's too old for physical labor. A service job is unlikely. He has a large cyst on his face he says he can't get removed because it's not life-threatening. Begging, in this economy, is the only way he knows to make money.

"The ban is going to take what little bit of livelihood that I have," he said. "But I'm not leaving. I won't beg anymore, but I'm going to stay in St. Pete. This is my home."

Otis Howard, 50, and Sian Cadle, 47, homeowners

Emigres from Manhattan, Howard and Cadle discovered their Historic Kenwood bungalow home after living in South Tampa.

He works from home as a production designer. She's a stay-at-home mom. They homeschool their kids. They like the tight-knit neighborhood and its compactness, which allows them to bike to nearby stores along Central Avenue.

In the last few years, they've been alarmed at the number of homeless people who walk through their neighborhood, leaving trash.

While the city's ban may not solve that problem, it will set new rules for the streets around their neighborhood, Cadle said.

"It drags you down to see these people on the corners," she said. "These are the signs of a ghetto. Banning it won't make it go away, but it says we are no longer 'anything goes.' "

They are sensitive to the perception that they aren't sympathetic to the homeless.

"My heart goes out to them," Howard said. "The homeless need our help. … but they shouldn't expect to support their families by panhandling or, for that matter, selling newspapers."

Shannon Mendes, 45, homeowner

Unlike many of her neighbors, Mendes feels the city has been too hard on the homeless by imposing regulations that govern their behavior in downtown.

"It disgusts me the way they are treated," said Mendes, who has lived with her husband and two children at her 24th Street N home for about four years. She moved from Richmond, Va., and has been taken aback by the surge in panhandlers.

But she does support the ban. Too many panhandlers are scammers, she said, who don't truly need help. "I saw one day there was a woman who had just had her hair done," Mendes said. "I didn't just get my hair done, so I wasn't going to give her any money."

Still, she's not optimistic that the ban will do anything about the overall homeless issue, which she says is reaching a crisis level. "This won't help the homeless. It will force some of the panhandlers to other places. So it passes the buck."

Jim Longstreth, 53, homeowner

As a Realtor, Longstreth said he witnesses firsthand the economic impact panhandlers have on Central Avenue and his neighborhood, Historic Kenwood.

He'll give tours of the area, only to be told by prospective businesses and homeowners that they will be in touch.

"They'll ask me, 'Is this place safe?' " Longstreth said. "Or they'll ask, 'What are these people doing? There's so many of them.' And later I learn that they've decided to locate in Fort Myers or somewhere else."

Longstreth moved to his bungalow about nine years ago. Panhandlers have long been a concern, he said, but the poor economy is making his neighbors fear that Kenwood's revitalization is at risk. Residents have resurrected a neighborhood crime watch patrol as the number of homeless people and panhandlers has climbed.

"I can't think of anyone who doesn't want to help a homeless person who wants help," Longstreth said of his neighbors, who make up one of the city's most influential associations. "It's the ones who don't want help who we're enabling every time we drop $1 into their hands."

Norman Barbuto, 47, panhandler

Even though his father lives nearby, Barbuto survives by living by his wits on the city streets.

"He knows I'm a survivor, so he doesn't worry about me," said Barbuto, who has had two marriages, seven daughters and two sons. He says he stays in touch with his children, but hasn't spoken with some for more than two years. He doesn't remember the age of his oldest child.

Barbuto is proud of the sign he waves to motorists at Fifth Avenue N and 31st Street.

I need parts 4 spaceship + food 4 journey. God speed.

"It gets their attention and makes them smile," Barbuto said. He makes about $15 a day, and admits to spending it on alcohol, namely Hurricane High Gravity. A 24-ounce can sells for about $1.30. "You can't get any lower than where I am," he said.

The ban is a way to force him to go to another city. But Barbuto said he won't go without a police escort. When the ban goes into effect today, he said he'll be there waving his sign.

"I will keep coming out here," he said. "It's just not right what they're doing to us."

St. Petersburg's panhandling ban underscores city's economic divide 06/12/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 13, 2010 12:46am]

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