TAMPA — A leading neighborhood association president on Wednesday threatened to organize a petition drive asking voters to ban all roadway panhandling in the city if council members don't take action soon.
Spencer Kass, president of the Virginia Park Neighborhood Association, told a panel of officials studying the matter that the problem has gotten out of hand and local government needs to act.
"The situation cannot stand as it is," Kass told the group during a meeting at County Center. "It's extremely dangerous."
Hillsborough County commissioners have called for a panel of local government and law enforcement representatives to determine how to respond to a growing number of people soliciting drivers from medians and along roads. The number of people seeking cash has drawn protests from many residents, who say they are tired of being harassed and that aggressive panhandlers are causing a traffic hazard.
The county already has an ordinance banning roadway solicitations in unincorporated areas, though it is not always enforced. Tampa City Council members have thus far declined to adopt a ban.
Kass, whose comments were largely directed at the panel members from Tampa, said later that a ballot petition would be directed at the city. He noted that Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods, an umbrella group representing 40 community associations, voted almost unanimously last month in support of a ban.
"It's causing problems," said Randy Baron, president of THAN. "There's a perception that it's causing unsafe conditions."
Should Kass make good on his threat, he would face a challenge. He would need to collect signatures from registered voters representing at least 10 percent of the people who cast ballots in the 2007 city election. That's nearly 18,000 signatures, and they would have to be collected before qualifying for city races ends on Jan. 14, said Travis Abercrombie, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County elections supervisor.
Panelists also heard Wednesday from representatives of nonprofit groups that serve the homeless. They said there has been a noticeable change in the makeup of people seeking donations along roadways.
Some are former middle-class families that lost homes or jobs and are desperate, they said. Before local governments take action, they need to get a better understanding of what is leading people to plead for cash and help them get assistance so they don't turn to crime.
Roadway solicitations can be banned, but "you're not going to take the desperation out of the people," said Connie Farrington, a board member and volunteer coordinator for the I Am Hope Cafe in Brandon.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.