Tampa Bay residents strongly support ban on street solicitation and panhandling

After getting money from a motorist James Edward Zawislak makes his way through traffic on 34th Street N in June before St. Petersburg began enforcing its solicitation ban.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

After getting money from a motorist James Edward Zawislak makes his way through traffic on 34th Street N in June before St. Petersburg began enforcing its solicitation ban.

Tony LoCicero has had enough of being hit up for money in Ybor City and West Tampa. The 45-year-old father wants the city of Tampa to copy St. Petersburg and ban street soliciting.

So do a lot of other people from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

A new poll shows 72 percent of adults in the two counties support St. Petersburg's ban on transactions between motorists and people in the medians — a law geared to thwart panhandlers.

Plus, 65 percent support the idea of other cities passing similar laws, according to the survey of 600 adults for the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9.

"It makes me feel uncomfortable sitting in traffic while there is someone on the side of the road holding up a sign and asking for money," said LoCicero, who lives in unincorporated southeast Hillsborough.

The survey by American Directions Group took place Dec. 8 to 14 and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Support was equally strong in each county, according to the poll. Overall, 20 percent opposed the bans.

In June, the St. Petersburg City Council adopted the ordinance that bans all solicitation along major roads. Charitable groups, firefighters who conduct fundraisers and the Times complained it would hurt their work. Some homeless advocates worried it would criminalize being homeless.

The newspaper sued but dropped the case after a judge refused to block the ordinance.

In recent months, Tampa neighborhood leaders have pressed their City Council to pass the same ban. But council members have balked at putting it on the March 1 election ballot or voting on a ban. They raised questions over the legality, the effect on unemployment and homelessness, and the harm a ban could impose on good charitable causes.

More debate is expected early next year, however. Tampa City Council member Tom Scott said he expects a tougher law to emerge, at least for major roads.

"My position is we can't do something off the cuff; we've got to defend the ordinance," Scott said. He acknowledged public support borne from "frustration" and "irritation."

Tampa allows soliciting in streets, but requires people to wear safety vests when asking for money, fundraising or selling things.

"At the end of the day, I think we're going to end up with what St. Pete has," said Spencer Kass, a Tampa neighborhood leader who spearheaded an unsuccessful petition drive in December to put a ban on the ballot.

Hillsborough has a ban, and Plant City and Temple Terrace limit solicitation. Some cities in Pinellas have debated similar measures, and Sarah Snyder, executive director of the county's Coalition for the Homeless, predicts the debate could reach the Pinellas County Commission in 2011. The county does not restrict panhandling from medians.

Though government needs to offer ways to help the homeless, they need to take responsibility for themselves and people need to feel safe, LoCicero said.

"If you've got two arms, and you've got two legs and you're not crazy, you should be able to land a job," said LoCicero, a former auto finance industry worker who is currently disabled.

A blanket ban for every street would be tough to accept, he said, but he supported other cities imposing restrictions.

"It's hard for me to turn around and say, 'No, don't panhandle anyplace.' There's a time and there's a place for everything," LoCicero said.

Kass said the biggest problem is safety, both for people seeking money and for motorists.

That's also the defining reason why Clearwater resident Nicole Goeglein, 53, supports the St. Petersburg law and imposing it in other cities.

"I know it's really bad in St. Pete, but I do wish there was a better solution to helping them. I don't know what that would be," said Geoglein, a jewelry maker who recalled experiencing aggressive panhandling in her city.

The poll results reflect the support from neighborhoods throughout the city, said St. Petersburg Council member Bill Dudley. Residents were sick of aggressive panhandling.

"I'm not surprised at it at all," Dudley said. "Every place you go, every function I went to, it was the same topic: When are we going to do something about these people?"

Council member Wengay Newton initially questioned the measure but ultimately voted for it. Newton said the law has worked.

"It wasn't something I wanted to do," Newton said, noting disruption to charities and the newspaper hawkers. "But it was what they call the nuclear option, and it was the only option."

Dudley and Newton both said they've seen a surge in panhandling in Tampa during recent visits. Tampa officials and residents said panhandling spiked after St. Petersburg enacted its law. But Newton said his city had to act — and Tampa has control of its own restrictions.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Tampa Bay residents strongly support ban on street solicitation and panhandling 12/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 9:33pm]

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