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Tarpon Springs bolsters anti-panhandling law

TARPON SPRINGS — Concerned about an uptick in panhandling and public nuisances, city commissioners unanimously strengthened their rules against solicitation Tuesday night.

Adopted in 2006, the ordinance was tailored to the city's Sponge Docks to deter restaurant workers who often made tourists uncomfortable with aggressive menu marketing.

But with the new ordinance, aggressive begging, soliciting or panhandling in any public place in the city is prohibited on any day after sunset and before sunrise.

Tarpon Springs acting police Chief Robert Kochen said the number of police calls for disorderly intoxication and conduct, trespassing and public urination are up.

Strengthening the ordinance is one prong in an encompassing approach to the city's homelessness problem, he said.

Kochen also wants an officer dedicated to helping those arrested get services such as housing and drug and alcohol treatment.

In addition, Kochen has asked the Shepherd Center, the agency that coordinates many of the services for the city's needy, to start requiring those served at soup kitchens to register.

If someone who receives services from the center continues to get arrested for crimes in the city, Kochen said he wants the Shepherd Center to refuse them further services.

"It's a revolving door when we simply arrest and it's not solving the problem," Kochen said. "We are trying to help get them with counseling and treatment. But they can't continue to thumb their nose at us and not follow our laws. Why should we continue to provide them services?"

Ronald Haddad, the Shepherd Center's board chairman, is empathetic to downtown business owners who have complained of people urinating and defecating on storefronts. But the center's mission is to provide services, he said, and homeless people represent only 5 percent of its clients, which also include the elderly and the poor.

"We are a faith-based organization with 13 churches in the greater Tarpon area," Haddad said. "We feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Denying someone food raises a red flag."

Haddad said registration would be an expensive undertaking. But the outreach effort with a police officer is a step in the right direction, he said.

The Shepherd Center is also creating about 1,000 cards, paid for by the Police Department, that advise tourists to not give money to panhandlers, instead listing local agencies that can assist.

Both Kochen and Haddad said there are a small number of people causing the problem with aggressive begging and panhandling.

"I don't think we are ever going to solve the problem 100 percent, but there are only like 10 that are the real aggressive troublemakers," Haddad said. "If we can get that number down to four or five, then that's progress.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 727-445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Tarpon Springs bolsters anti-panhandling law 03/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 8:33pm]
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