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Panhandling issue spurs momentum for regional solution

TAMPA — Pressure is mounting for a regional ban on street vending after a St. Petersburg ordinance drove panhandlers to other cities.

From Tampa to Clearwater to Pinellas Park, more panhandlers are showing up on the streets. Tampa police say the number has doubled since June, when St. Petersburg banned street solicitation.

"This situation has gotten out of control on our streets," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who hears more complaints about panhandling than about anything else. She would like to follow St. Petersburg's lead but would prefer a countywide ordinance.

Neighborhood groups are pressuring the Tampa City Council to ban street vending. But the council has refused, blaming the economy.

"Anybody that drives down a street in Tampa knows it's a safety issue, and everyone, of course, feels bad for these people," said Spencer Kass, a member of an umbrella group of about 40 civic associations. Kass said he is exploring the idea of a citizen petition to force the issue.

Pressure from neighborhood groups led the St. Petersburg City Council to ban street vending, including newspaper sales and charity solicitations by firefighters.

The result: Panhandlers have all but disappeared from city street corners and medians.

"The difference is night and day,'' said St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse.

Iorio, citing safety concerns, said she will lobby the Tampa City Council, which rejected a ban on Oct. 14.

Council member Charlie Miranda said he's considering several proposals and wants to be fair to everyone — street vendors, charities and newspaper hawkers.

Council member Tom Scott said he will wait for a recommendation from a study committee formed by the Hillsborough County Commission after St. Petersburg passed its ban. The group will meet for the second time this month.

Other cities in Pinellas are concerned, too.

After St. Petersburg approved its ban, Mayor Bill Foster wrote a letter to several other cities in the county acknowledging that the decision affected them.

Foster said Pinellas Park officials have told him they have seen an uptick in panhandlers. On Thursday, Pinellas Park police officers attended a workshop in St. Petersburg that addressed a regional solution.

That same day, the topic came up when Foster and other St. Petersburg officials met with Pinellas County sheriff's officials and County Administrator Bob LaSala to discuss homelessness and related issues. Clearwater officials also have spoken with St. Petersburg officials about the panhandling issue.

But the biggest surge has been in Tampa.

Last year Tampa police encountered 544 panhandlers. The number has risen to 719 so far this year.

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said other regions of the country are seeing similar increases in panhandling. While she doesn't agree with a ban, she said it is best to have the same rules across a region.

Panhandlers in Tampa have noticed a difference since St. Petersburg passed its ban. Corners are crowded. Tension is rising.

On a recent weekday morning, panhandlers were on every median leading up to the busy intersection of Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway.

Jesse Miller, 58, said he worked the street for nearly two hours when another guy showed up. "That's wrong. It's first come, first served," Miller said.

Miller, who has panhandled in Tampa for about six years, said he stays on the median and disapproves of how some panhandlers weave among cars.

He said the competition at street corners has intensified since the St. Petersburg ban.

Bill collector Somona Sharp, 33, has seen it from her car. She said she gives a few dollars to women with signs claiming they have cancer or are pregnant, but lately she is disturbed by more aggressive panhandlers.

"Something's got to be done,'' Sharp said.

Miller thinks a ban in Tampa is imminent. So does Daniel Battoe, a fellow panhandler who walked a nearby median with fliers and an arm in a sling.

The crowding of panhandlers puts government officials in a tight spot, Battoe said, but he worries about what some panhandlers would do instead.

"If these guys don't do what they do, the crime rates are going to go sky high," Battoe said.

Times staff writers Danny Valentine and Michael Van Sickler and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ileana Morales can be reached at 813-226-3386 or imorales@sptimes.com.

Eric Freeburger, 32, and his wife, Sherri Faulk, 26, panhandle at Gandy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa last month. They said they have been panhandling in Tampa for six months. 

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Eric Freeburger, 32, and his wife, Sherri Faulk, 26, panhandle at Gandy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa last month. They said they have been panhandling in Tampa for six months. 

Panhandling issue spurs momentum for regional solution 10/29/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 31, 2010 11:46pm]
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