The "solicitation ordinances" that St. Petersburg, Clearwater and other Pinellas cities are pursuing are not really about making pedestrians safer or improving traffic flow. They are legally flawed responses to a political problem: Residents are tired of being panhandled and seeing scruffy people holding signs asking for money. But panhandling laws do not cure the homeless problem, and they infringe on free speech, commerce and charitable efforts.
The St. Petersburg City Council will hold a public hearing Thursday and take a final vote on significantly expanding the city's panhandling restrictions. The proposal would ban anyone from collecting money or distributing materials to motorists traveling on the interstate, interstate ramps and other major roads throughout the city. While council members and residents are understandably frustrated with the proliferation of panhandling, this simplistic response is no solution.
Anyone has the right to ask strangers for help. We acknowledge the St. Petersburg Times has a financial interest in this issue; the hawkers hired to sell the newspaper on Sundays would be banned. But so would firefighters and other groups soliciting money for charitable causes. Putting more people out of work and reducing donations for charity is not the most thoughtful approach, particularly as the area struggles to recover from the economic recession.
St. Petersburg already has limits on begging for money that could be better enforced. City ordinances ban aggressive panhandling that involves threats or touching. Begging also is banned within 15 feet of ATMs, at sidewalk cafes and city bus stops, on private property and between dusk and dawn. It is banned entirely in parts of downtown that draw tourists such as the Pier, Straub Park, BayWalk and surrounding areas. Citywide bans elsewhere have been ruled unconstitutional, and focusing on major streets throughout St. Petersburg pushes those boundaries.
Clearwater officials, wanting to allow firefighter boot drives for charity but wipe out roadside panhandling, have created an elaborate solicitor approval process, with right of appeal, that homeless people would find extremely difficult to navigate. That also is legally suspect.
St. Petersburg council members say residents are demanding protection from panhandlers, but this proposed ordinance would create more problems than it would solve. It would eliminate jobs. It would reduce charitable donations. And it could push aggressive panhandlers from highly visible main streets into nearby neighborhoods.
The city has made advances in dealing with homelessness in recent years. But elected officials who want real solutions should not embrace simplistic but politically popular ordinances that fail to address the reasons there are so many panhandlers. It is a complex problem that requires a more thoughtful response.