LET'S BE CLEAR: Hillsborough County and its three cities are not exploring street-solicitation bans out of concern for the safety of panhandlers; it's quite the other way around. Residents are tired of seeing beggars on the street and afraid when they approach their cars asking for money. But using the vagrancy laws to react to an appearance problem only stifles protected speech. It makes conditions more desperate for entire families that depend on loose change at the corner to get by. Local governments should turn their attention instead to beefing up social and housing programs. Communities already have laws on the books to deal with panhandlers who are real security risks.
A committee of city, county and law enforcement officials is studying whether to propose a countywide ban on solicitations. A county ordinance already bans roadside solicitations in the unincorporated areas, but the law is rarely enforced. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio wants a ban in the city, too, but she wants any ordinance to apply uniformly in the city and the suburbs. The committee will examine whether to propose a boilerplate ban for the county, Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.
The move comes in response to a similar ban St. Petersburg imposed in June. Proponents say that panhandlers in the street pose a danger to themselves and to the traveling public. In recent months, supporters in Tampa also claimed that beggars chased from St. Petersburg were crossing the bay and setting up shop on Tampa-area streets. But police have no hard numbers on the extent of the problem. And most of the anecdotes that supporters offer have nothing to do with concerns over a panhandler's welfare but instead with the anxiety motorists have with strangers approaching their cars.
The St. Petersburg Times has a financial interest in this issue; the ban would bar street sales of the newspaper. But firefighters and other groups also would be barred from soliciting charitable donations in the roadway. And the ban would not add any new level of protection to vendors or to the public. Cities and counties such as Tampa and Hillsborough already have ordinances that ban aggressive begging, blocking the roadways and other nuisances. State law already bans standing in the roadway.
Tampa's City Council has acted responsibly by blocking the ban. People have a right to ask others for help, to support themselves and to assemble. The net effect of these bans is to empower law enforcement to display a show of force against citizens who panhandle. This may be what residents want. But they should face facts in this down economy. The government should be using its limited resources to address the root of the problem — not wasting the police's time shooing panhandlers away. The county should be working with private charities to give the down-and-out housing, job training, mental health care and other services. Driving panhandlers away from Dale Mabry Highway may keep them out of sight. But they are still in our community.