Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

Fewer homeless in downtown St. Petersburg two years after panhandling ban

ST. PETERSBURG — There once was a time when Tammy Simms heard tons of complaints from downtown businesses about panhandlers.

She can't remember the last time that happened.

"It's probably longer than I could put a date to," said Simms, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Business Association. "Maybe last year?"

It has been two years since the city tightened its rules on panhandling and instituted a general ban on "street solicitation."

Since then, the downtown homeless population has shrunk dramatically. No longer are people gathering in front of City Hall to sleep, and complaints about panhandlers pestering tourists and patrons also have decreased.

"There's a marked improvement and it has taken a lot of pressure off our merchants," Simms said. "But I think there are still a core of regular faces that continue."

Data from the city bears that out.

From January through May 30, police logged just 20 arrests or citations for panhandling.

That's significantly less than two years ago, when city leaders approved the panhandling ban. That year, 2010, there were 180 arrests or citations, according to the Police Department.

"Before they started the ban, it would be nothing to see 10, 15, maybe more panhandlers a day. They were just everywhere. It was definitely disconcerting," said Linda Albrecht, owner of the Gift Box on Beach Drive. "When they stopped … and authorities really came down on it, it's been a delight to be down here any day of the week."

That doesn't mean that all of the panhandlers are gone.

A week ago, officers watched as transient Michael Smigelski, 51, begged a man for cash in a parking lot at Second Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

Officers had warned Smigelski before about panhandling, and records show he was arrested for it earlier this year. He was arrested again.

"The defendant refuses to cooperate in the diversionary program at Pinellas Safe Harbor," officers wrote in a report.

Officials say there has always been a group of homeless who have no plans to change, refuse to get help and continue to beg for money on city streets.

St. Petersburg Officer Rich Linkiewicz, the city's only homeless outreach officer, knows most of them — including Smigelski — by name.

"I've been dealing with them for years," he said. "Many are alcoholics. They've gone through most of the shelters."

Rhonda Abbott, who coordinates homeless services for the city, often keeps brochures in her car with information on how to help the homeless.

She's not shy about handing them out to people she sees giving money to panhandlers. "It's all about education," Abbott said.

The brochures urge people to, "Give a hand up, not a hand out," and list organizations that work with homeless and need donations.

Officials also routinely steer homeless people to Pinellas Safe Harbor, the shelter run by the Sheriff's Office whose main purpose is to keep those who would normally land in jail for minor offenses — like panhandling — out of jail.

Safe Harbor also accepts those who may walk up intoxicated or on drugs.

"You just have to keep trying, to get them help and get them cleaned up," Linkiewicz said of dealing with the "chronically homeless." "When they're ready, we're ready."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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