The city of Tampa is poised to crack down on panhandling and the congregation of homeless people downtown when it should be engaged in a broader discussion about long-range solutions. The City Council endorsed two proposed ordinances last week that come close to criminalizing homelessness, and there should be a more thoughtful debate when council members return to the issue July 18. Any long-term solution will require a new strategy from the city for moving homeless people into safe and stable housing, not making arrests.
The proposed ordinances include a tighter ban on panhandling downtown and in Ybor City, and outlawing sleeping in city parks and other public places. Some restaurant owners have complained that aggressive panhandlers have harassed customers at sidewalk cafes. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says homeless people have taken over some downtown parks, turning them into "campgrounds" that drive away people and sully the city's image. These concerns are overblown; the police average only four complaints a day about panhandling in the downtown and Ybor City area. But there still are legitimate public health and safety issues to address, and that requires improving conditions for the homeless as much as improving the environment for anyone else.
Buckhorn should work with Hillsborough County on a far-reaching solution. While the county is legally responsible for providing social services for the homeless in Hillsborough, those on the downtown streets are for all practical purposes a city problem. Though the county is finally starting to address chronic homelessness, it has done little for thousands of people who bounce between friends, cars and motels because they lack the money or support services that would put them on course to find stable housing.
City Council member Mary Mulhern, who deserves credit for being the only one last week to vote against both proposed ordinances, correctly pointed out the courts have ruled that communities must provide some alternative to the streets if they adopt more aggressive steps to outlaw panhandling and sleeping in public places. The homeless are in Tampa's parks because there is nowhere else to go. Many shelters close during the day, forcing the homeless to take their personal belongings with them. Chased from private property, they congregate in the parks' shaded areas to escape the heat. There is nothing unusual about why homeless people go where they go. And public parks are open to everyone.
The city has not yet made a compelling case to broaden its panhandling ban to include entire zones of downtown. It has plenty of ordinances to bar aggressive solicitations, loitering, blocking the streets and sidewalks, open drinking and any other conduct "that interferes with the use and enjoyment" of the city's parks by other users.
The city has an obligation, though, to make the parks and public places accessible to all and as safe as possible. The mayor and council should search for common ground on a broader strategy that needs to pass legal muster and have a chance of working.