St. Petersburg's mayoral race has degenerated into a contest to see who can be more punitive toward panhandlers. Candidates are jockeying to out-tough one another, with Deveron Gibbons telling voters recently he would "guarantee" that street beggars would no longer be a problem under his administration. Gibbons is either naive or purposely exaggerating, because there are constitutional limits on what the city can do to address the issue. In fact, most of the candidates seem intent on demagoging the panhandling situation, with many suggesting simplistically that the solution lies in tougher ordinances.
Every leading candidate in the race has some suggestion for dealing with downtown St. Petersburg's unwelcome panhandlers. Probably the most creative response comes from businessman Scott Wagman, who suggests that a volunteer civilian patrol be established to stroll downtown and remind people that they shouldn't give directly to the homeless but to social service agencies instead. The real problem with beggars is that they succeed in extracting money from passersby. If no one gave, the panhandlers would have to move on or rely on local social services.
Gibbons says he would ban begging at interstate off-ramps across the city. Bill Foster, Jamie Bennett, Kathleen Ford, John Warren and Larry Williams want to ban it in larger parts of downtown or the entirety of downtown. Wagman seems to be the only one who understands the legal constraints under which a city operates. He says he would seek aggressive enforcement of current ordinances. Ed Helm doesn't want enforcement against people asking for help.
While no one likes being approached by a stranger for money, St. Petersburg's city leaders have already taken sweeping steps to limit how people can beg and where. There are ordinances against aggressive panhandling — when threatening or touching is involved — and against begging within 15 feet from ATMs, at sidewalk cafes, on a bus or at city bus stops, on private property or between dusk and dawn. Panhandling also is banned entirely in parts of downtown where tourists tend to be, including the Pier, Straub Park, BayWalk and surrounding areas.
But that is about as far as the city can go and have any hope of winning a court challenge. Panhandlers' exercise of free speech may make us uncomfortable, but case law recognizes their right to ask a stranger for financial help, just as someone else has a right to ask for directions. Decades ago, St. Petersburg had an ordinance that banned panhandling citywide. It was struck down, according to City Attorney John Wolfe.
Mayor Rick Baker and the City Council have been advised that expanding panhandling bans to include interstate exit ramps, for example, is probably not legally defensible. Meanwhile, the city is already being sued for its many rules targeting homelessness. There is no reason to add more First Amendment restrictions on the homeless population before the current lawsuit is resolved and the city knows where it stands.
As the mayor's race heats up, candidates should tone down the rhetoric. No one should be making promises that they will drive panhandlers from the city. That only encourages other candidates to raise the stakes. Panhandling is a serious and complex problem, and it deserves a thoughtful response.