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With a ban on panhandling, where do they go?

Seventy-year-old Samuel Johnson is such a fixture on the South Tampa corner by the expressway entrance ramp that some commuters worry if they don't see him for a day or two.

One day a lady who glimpsed Johnson standing there brought him a metal chair. Now he sits facing busy Willow Avenue in faded jeans, Super Bowl cap and the reflective vest the city requires of panhandlers.

Once, he was a longshoreman from Memphis. Once, he made good money, $18 an hour. But life happened, and he has been on this corner for years, regular as the traffic light, with his shopping cart like a faithful dog by his side and a cardboard sign that says Homeless Please Help God Bless.

And people do, with dollars, drinks and food. The lawyer in the office he sits next to, Christopher Ligori, pays him $20 a week to sweep the sidewalk. He can live on $5 a day. Ask where he sleeps and he says, "Anywhere God catches me."

So what happens to him and all the others who seem to be on every corner lately, a scourge or a sign of the times, depending on which side you're on? What happens when the City Council passes its panhandling ban Thursday, barring them every day but Sunday and making the most crash-prone intersections off-limits all week?

A few blocks away, Steven Gruetzmacher sits on a bus bench with a friend he calls his "road dog," the streets being safer in twos. He worked construction but says he lost his job after an open container arrest. "If somebody offers me work cleaning a toilet, I'd do it," he says. "I ask guys in work trucks and they say, 'Man, I'm about to lose my job.' " He wishes we had a Works Progress Administration today, putting people to work on public projects. Anything helps! his sign says.

On the ban, he quotes the lone City Council member to vote against it: "Like Mary Mulhern said: It's an image problem." Like others I talked to, he says St. Petersburg's stricter rules sent more of them onto Tampa's streets.

His prediction for what the ban will bring: more crime, more "hand-to-hand panhandling," as in people asking for money face to face in parking lots. And — music to the ears of those who just want it gone — some will leave.

A blond woman holding a sign downtown — "flying," they call it — says that since she lost her job, it's how she gets by. She can't talk long because she has to pick up her kids from after-school care. Over by the library, a weathered man leans heavily on a traffic sign between waves of passing cars. He barks at me: Do I think he wants to be out here?

The city deserves some credit. The hybrid rule likely to pass (the last vote being 6-1) allows vendors for newspapers (like mine) all week and panhandling Sundays. This appeases those opposed to street begging, but it also isn't an all-out ban. While it may be legally vulnerable because it sets different rules for different people, it's a sincere effort to confront a dilemma.

But this always comes down to a tangle of answers about why they're there and what to do about it. Booze, drugs, bad luck, bad economy, mental health issues and crime thread through their stories. Not enough jobs, beds or services for people who need them are in there, too.

On his corner, Samuel Johnson says if he can't do this, he'll figure something out. "God said I'm going to make it," he tells me, but you wonder how, especially once we can't see him anymore.

With a ban on panhandling, where do they go? 10/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 8:25pm]

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