Mayoral snipe-fest really a push for solutions

It had the makings of a major mayoral smackdown.

But in the end, this week's Battle Across the Bay That Wasn't may actually be a sign of how serious we are, finally, about dealing with people living on the streets.

First, the potential mayors battle. Talking tough to his City Council, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster called out his counterpart across the bay, which was particularly notable since the two have thus far treated each other as politely as guests seated next to each other at a dinner party.

(Not counting that smoldering question of where the Rays may one day play.)

If I may paraphrase: Foster essentially said that if Tampa thinks it's going to push its homeless problem into his town like stashing dirty laundry under the bed when houseguests arrive — as in, several gazillion Republicans, reporters and protesters coming for the big convention next year — well, Tampa best think twice.

"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 said, in case you were wondering if he had an opinion on the subject.

Asked about the jab, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn would have been within his rights to counter-observe that St. Pete's ban on street solicitation more likely pushed homeless people into his town, where lately every busy intersection seems to have at least one panhandler, sometimes more.

But, no, Buckhorn did not challenge Foster to meet him behind a Dumpster on Gandy to settle the score. In fact, his response was downright considered: We do not expect St. Petersburg to deal with our problem. And also: "I think we need to do more. Clearly the work (Foster has) done over there is the right strategy, and I think he should be complimented for it." Acknowledging the problem, and talking about doing something about it. Nice.

The same day as the mayoral back-and-forth, the Tampa City Council was busy hammering out its own hybrid solicitation ban, this one a compromise between people who say forbidding panhandling only makes poverty a crime and those who want the homeless gone.

This softer version of St. Petersburg's law allows newspaper hawking and "expressive" speech like sign waving. On Sundays only, street solicitation — including charity drives and panhandling — would be allowed, too. It isn't a done deal; the proposal comes back before the council Sept. 22.

But bans are nothing without beds or services like job placement, health care or alcohol treatment (see: stuffing the laundry under the bed). Without a plan beyond a ban, it's just politics and pushing off a problem to the next town, the next county, until they ban it there, too.

Pinellas and St. Petersburg have gone way beyond talking with efforts like Pinellas Hope and Safe Harbor, the new shelter that shows what cooperation between public officials can accomplish.

Hello, Hillsborough? Tampa? Anyone listening?

Apparently so. That same Tampa council meeting included talk about the Safe Harbor approach for its own back yard. Of course the enthusiastic cooperation of county commissioners and law enforcement would be critical, too.

So it was no mayor snipe-fest after all, more like a push for solutions. We'll take it.

Mayoral snipe-fest really a push for solutions 09/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 9, 2011 8:50pm]

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