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Tampa moves ahead with further restrictions on homeless people

TAMPA — The city is one step closer to enacting a new set of restrictions on homeless people, an emotional issue that drew business owners, homeless people and advocates to Thursday's City Council meeting.

Council members discussed two proposed ordinances that would add more restrictions to an existing six-day-a-week ban on roadside panhandling. The first would ban panhandling near downtown, Ybor City, banks, ATMs, sidewalk cafes and transit stops in an effort to stop people from begging in places others can't easily leave.

The second would prohibit people from storing their property in public, urinating in public, and sleeping or camping in parks, on sidewalks or in public rights of way.

The last point was the most contentious because it would allow police to arrest — after one warning — a homeless person who refuses to go to a shelter and instead sleeps in public. A handful of homeless men and advocates argued that the city would be criminalizing people simply for being homeless.

Later, council member Lisa Montelione persuaded the council to increase the warnings to three.

"You can't make these people go to these facilities," she said.

Tampa police Officer Daniel McDonald, who works daily with Tampa's homeless population, attended Thursday's meeting. He estimates about 700 chronically homeless people live in Tampa. It can be difficult to persuade those people to go to shelters, he said.

"I'm really nagging them to death," he said.

Still, council member Mary Mulhern said the city must first increase its shelter offerings before passing an ordinance like this. Courts have ruled that cities must ensure there are adequate alternatives before banning behaviors — such as sleeping on sidewalks — that are closely associated with homelessness.

She was the only council member to vote against both proposed ordinances. They passed Thursday's first reading and will come back July 18 for a second reading and public comment.

Mulhern said she was concerned that it was unreasonable to expect 700 people to find shelter, as required, but McDonald said the department tends to deal with a few homeless people each day, which wouldn't tax the already exiting shelters.

Both he and Capt. Marc Hamlin insisted that the Police Department does not want to make arrests. Instead, they hope the threat of arrest might be leverage for convincing the chronically homeless to check into shelters.

"It's basically a tool saying, 'We know what's best for you,' " McDonald said.

All council members expressed approval of the part of the second ordinance that would ban urinating and defecating in public — something that Ybor City business owners have said is a problem.

But during public comments, one homeless man asked where he was supposed to go to the restroom at 3 a.m. An advocate insisted that being able to use the restroom is a basic human right. Mulhern suggested the city look into getting portable toilets.

Maria Barcus, chief executive officer of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, said she supported the ordinances. A homeless count by the coalition in 2011 found 4,681 homeless people. This year's number was significantly lower: 2,275.

The city expects to get additional federal help to deal with chronically homeless people, including specific aid for veterans, this year.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Tampa moves ahead with further restrictions on homeless people 06/27/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 27, 2013 11:56pm]
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