TAMPA — The City Council voted Thursday to explore a ban on panhandling in downtown and Ybor City as well as near automated teller machines, banks and sidewalk cafes citywide.
Following the lead of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, the council also asked for rules to restrict storing personal property in public places, urinating in public and sleeping or camping in parks, on sidewalks or on public rights of way.
But there's a catch.
"Any ordinance that we pass cannot be enforced unless the city provides alternatives to the conduct we're trying to prohibit," said council member Harry Cohen, who asked for the draft ordinances on June 27.
That's because behaviors like storing possessions on public property and sleeping on sidewalks are closely associated with homelessness. And courts have ruled that cities must ensure there are alternate services available before enforcing any bans on those behaviors. Otherwise, the bans would criminalize the status of being homeless.
Tampa police say the number of calls they get about panhandling, solicitation and behaviors like public urination has gone up about 10 percent in 16 months.
But the homeless population in Hillsborough County appears to be significantly smaller than was believed two years ago.
A homeless count in 2011 found 7,335 homeless people. (Add in those who were not on the street but were doubling up with family or friends and the number grew to about 17,000.)
Later, officials determined that the 7,335 included about 3,000 schoolchildren who should not have been counted because they were in the category of people living in doubled-up circumstances, according to Maria Barcus, the new chief executive officer of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
When the Homeless Coalition did this year's count in January, the number came back so low that organizers decided on a do-over. The first count took place the Thursday before Gasparilla, so advocates suspected that some homeless individuals might have cleared out of their usual spots.
But the recount, which took place last month, also resulted in a surprisingly low number. Barcus said results are still being tallied, but she expects the total to be "significantly less" than 4,000.
Police did not say why they think complaints are up, though Mayor Bob Buckhorn offered an opinion.
"That tells you that those that are here are increasingly more aggressive, more brazen and because of our inability to have the tools to do something about it, it's becoming increasingly problematic," Buckhorn said after the vote.
Tampa's code already bans panhandling in a threatening, intimidating or harassing way. And in 2011, the city banned asking motorists for handouts on the side of the road six days of the week. But that ordinance concerns only transactions between pedestrians and drivers.
Speaking to the council Thursday, residents and business owners, many of them from Ybor City, generally said more restrictions are needed. They described vagrants scaring guests at Ybor hotels, hectoring diners for money and sleeping in lounges, labs and classrooms at the Ybor campus of Hillsborough Community College.
"Unfortunately, a lot of our visitors that come in are accosted on a daily basis," said Don Barco, owner of King Corona Cigars on Seventh Avenue. "I have a cafe under my roof, and I'm constantly having to go out and deal with people that are bothering my customers. Coming in in the morning, a lot of times on 16th Street I'm having to step over people who are sleeping on the sidewalk."
That's why the city needs the new rules, Buckhorn said.
"You can't stick your head in the sand and ignore it because you don't have 10 gazillion dollars to cure the problem," he said. "We're never going to have that. But we've got to take these steps in the interim."
Still, council members pointed out that to enforce the new prohibitions, the city needs more shelter beds. "We don't have a facility to bring these people to," member Lisa Montelione said.
But that doesn't mean there aren't any beds.
One week in February, police surveyed the number of homeless people downtown in the middle of the night, then counted the number of open shelter beds within walking distance. They found an average of about seven available beds per night.
"There was almost a choice not to partake in those open beds," Assistant Police Chief John Bennett said.
Still, council member Mary Mulhern said, "There's no way" that's enough. There are a lot of people who do not have places to sleep."
In Pinellas County, county government and 12 municipalities came together in 2011 to open Safe Harbor, which houses about 300 chronically homeless people per night.
Barcas said she has begun studying what it would take to create a shelter to provide "bridge housing" for perhaps 60 people. In the long run, Buckhorn acknowledged, local officials need to discuss providing more shelter space.
"Clearly, our inventory is not what it needs to be," he said. "At some point, do we need to have a facility similar to (Safe Harbor)? Probably."