TAMPA — After nearly a year of often-anguished debate, the Tampa City Council took a first step Thursday toward adopting a six-day-a-week ban on panhandling.
"Out of control," council member Harry Cohen said of the problem before the vote. "It's getting worse."
Still, there would be exceptions to the ban.
As proposed, it would allow newspaper vendors to hawk papers seven days a week. And pedestrians engaged in purely "expressive" speech — waving signs, picketing, even wearing advertising costumes — would be allowed every day, as long as they didn't exchange any objects with drivers.
On Sundays, these groups could be joined on the curb by any other roadside solicitation that's now legal, including raising money for charity and panhandling.
An ordinance with these rules is scheduled to come back to the City Council on Sept. 22.
Coincidentally, the vote took place just hours after St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said Tampa can't count on St. Petersburg to deal with its homeless — especially during next year's Republican convention.
Foster's warning came at a St. Petersburg City Council meeting during which police reported a slight increase in the number of homeless people from Hillsborough seeking aid in Pinellas County.
Already, the Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter, which opened in January, is at capacity, with an average daily population of about 400.
"This needs to be dealt with, especially since they have a high-profile event coming up next year, and they've done absolutely nothing to deal with that situation," Foster told the council.
Later, Foster expressed his disappointment that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn hadn't responded to an offer to meet with Robert Marbut, a homeless consultant hired by St. Petersburg.
"I don't understand the resistance across the bay," Foster said. "I have offered to personally escort Dr. Marbut to the mayor's office in Tampa. I have yet to hear back. Why? I can only surmise."
It was Foster's first public criticism of Tampa's mayor since Buckhorn took office in April.
But Buckhorn said he took no offense.
"I think we need to do more," he said. "Clearly the work (Foster) has done over there is the right strategy. I think he should be complimented for it."
Buckhorn said he has told Foster, "I would welcome having the opportunity to meet" Marbut.
"I haven't done it yet just because I've been doing other things," Buckhorn said.
He said St. Petersburg need not worry that Tampa will try to dump its problems during next year's GOP convention.
"We're not going to be diverting our homeless population to Pinellas County, if that's what they fear," he said.
Last year, St. Petersburg officials adopted a ban on panhandling that prohibits people from soliciting cars in the street.
After that, the homeless became less visible in St. Petersburg but more visible in Tampa.
In response to an increased number of panhandlers — some, officials have suspected, from Pinellas — the Tampa City Council has discussed passing some type of ban on street solicitations at least seven times.
On Thursday, most residents who spoke supported a ban.
"It is scary, sometimes, when I drive up to the intersection, and there's two guys coming up to my car, and I've got my young children," said Carrie Grimail, president of the Sunset Park Area Homeowners Association, which supports a ban.
"We care about the homeless and the people who are struggling right now," she said. "That's not what this is about. This is about public safety, it's about quality of life and it's about the impression that people coming to our town have when they see panhandlers at every street corner."
But council member Mary Mulhern, who cast the sole vote against the ban, said she has "never felt scared."
Rather, the people she talks to typically put the issue in terms of how panhandling reflects on Tampa, she said. That was not enough for her to vote to ban it.
"I do worry about us starting to criminalize poverty," she said.
Also on Thursday, a citizens task force on homelessness recommended that Tampa explore creating an assessment facility and shelter similar to Safe Harbor.
"In my line of work, it doesn't make very much sense to treat the symptom if you're not going to treat the disease," task force member Dr. Jason Wilson said.
An approach like Safe Harbor, which provides social services and mental and physical health care, as well as housing, costs less than incarcerating or hospitalizing the homeless, he said.
But Wilson said the effort needs help from the city to find a home and secure funding.
Buckhorn said he's willing to help look for a location and talk to county officials and business leaders. But he noted that in Hillsborough, the county is responsible for delivering social services.
"In concept, that diversion program makes all the sense in the world," he said. "Ultimately, the county is the authority that presides over social services. I am happy to partner with them."