TAMPA — For a third time since the fall, the Tampa City Council on Thursday declined to support a St. Petersburg-style ban on panhandling on city streets.
Virginia Park Neighborhood Association president Spencer Kass led a petition drive last month to gather the 18,000 signatures needed to place a proposed ban on the ballot, but the effort came up short.
On Thursday, Kass brought the council more than 500 petitions that he had managed to gather in the two weeks he had to canvass. And he again appealed to council members to put the matter on the ballot themselves.
But council members declined, saying they are working on their own proposals to restrict panhandling. Kass, they said, should look at the bigger picture.
Council member Charlie Miranda said supporters of a panhandling ban have yet to address the problems underlying the proliferation of panhandlers. People are jobless and homeless, he said. Some rely on money made hawking newspapers at curbside. Some don't even have that.
"There has to be some solution brought here other than 'Let's get rid of them,' " Miranda said. "There's got to be compassion somewhere along the line. Even in war, you pick up your wounded."
City Attorney Chip Fletcher said city officials are looking into two possible approaches to restricting panhandling. One would focus on restricting solicitations on larger streets, based on factors such as traffic volume, speed limits and the design of the roads.
The other would look at traffic data with an eye on restricting panhandling on days when there are the most cars and trucks on the roads. There's case law supporting such an approach as long as it's based on empirical evidence and traffic data, not just when city officials think traffic is light or heavy, Fletcher said.
Several council members, including Joseph Caetano and Mary Mulhern, suggested the city needs to look into ways to help the down and out, perhaps by finding a building to house the homeless.
"We haven't seen anything like this since the Depression," Mulhern said, citing a recent state Department of Children and Families estimate that nearly 24,000 people are homeless in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. "We have unemployment. We have homelessness like we've never seen."
It is not easy to tell people in need that they can't ask for help, Mulhern said. She also said the council has yet to hear any data about the claims that panhandling is dangerous.
Council Chairman Thomas Scott noted that the City Council has passed regulations that prohibit panhandlers from being in the street when traffic is moving. Those seeking donations also must be adults and can only work the medians during daylight hours.
"To say that council hasn't done anything is absolutely false," Scott said.
In October, council members opted not to pass a panhandling ban supported by neighborhoods, police and Mayor Pam Iorio.
After the discussion, Kass said neighborhoods were disappointed and disagreed that council members are doing anything or that they have offered a good reason why voters should not have a chance to consider a ban.
In the meantime, Kass said, "anybody who drives down the streets of the city knows they're getting worse and worse."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.