TAMPA — Panhandlers all over town are breaking out in bright new colors.
A city ordinance passed in October requires street vendors to wear reflective vests for their safety. That means charity solicitors, newspaper hawkers and, apparently, panhandlers.
"They say Miss Pam Iorio says so," said 48-year-old John Wilson, standing in the median of Kennedy Boulevard holding a "Need help" sign and wearing a neon vest.
The ordinance also requires vendors to be older than 18, to operate only during daylight and leave the roadway when a traffic light turns green.
But it's the lime-green vests that are getting all the attention.
"That wasn't the intent," City Council member Joseph Caetano said of panhandlers' new outfits. "But the vest is going to help them anyway if they're out there. We don't want people to get hurt."
Caetano thinks the ordinance needs more teeth. He said it should ban anyone from peddling anything in middle of the street, as St. Petersburg does.
Panhandling on public medians and through most of downtown was banned by St. Petersburg's City Council in 2008.
Tampa council member John Dingfelder said he has heard plenty of complaints about the number of panhandlers on busy street corners, but "our legal department says our hands are tied, from a First Amendment standpoint."
Dingfelder said the city can't prevent panhandlers from asking for spare change while also allowing charity groups to solicit donations.
"The best thing we can do is regulate it from a safety perspective."
The Federal Highway Administration established a similar reflective-vest rule in 2008 for anyone working along a highway, including construction crews, surveyors, law enforcement and members of the media.
Since Tampa's vest rule went into effect, police officers have been issuing warnings to anyone on the street without a vest, including panhandlers with cardboard signs.
Police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said panhandling is not illegal unless it becomes aggressive — if someone continues demanding money after being turned down or if the demands become violent.
Mark Taylor, hanging out Monday at Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway with a "Just hungry" sign, says the bright lime vest has advantages.
"I feel safer wearing it, but it I think it takes some of my profits away," said Taylor, who fears that motorists assume all vest-wearing panhandlers work as a team.
Taylor said he's not homeless. He's been staying at the Mayflower Motel in Seminole Heights for about a year.
Most days, he gets out to a Tampa street corner by about 9 a.m., and "by 2 o'clock I call it quits." He pays for his motel room, cell phone and meals this way.
He said that some panhandlers gather just enough change to buy beer, and he's afraid drivers will think if they give money to him, it'll go toward the others' booze habits, too.
"To some people, this is our livelihood. This is how we pay the bills," Taylor said.
He said he got his vest at Home Depot for $9.99.
Dave Rangel, who stocks the N Dale Mabry Highway store's hardware department, said the vests have been flying off the shelves in the past month.
The $10 green vests are most popular, Rangel said, but the store also offers $20 orange vests.
He said he has to put out about 10 more vests almost every day.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.