Feeding the homeless or giving them spare change only promotes illegal panhandling and unsafe behavior, according to a new City Hall campaign targeting the area's increasingly visible homeless population.
People should instead donate to one of the dozen social service agencies around the city that provide shelter, food and other services to the homeless, said Rhonda Abbott, the city's director of social services.
"These agencies know exactly what they are doing," she said. "They know how to handle the food, how to handle the things that are donated, who to help. It is just a safer and healthier way to donate."
The effort is part of the city's latest attempt to curb panhandling, a practice long considered a detriment to downtown St. Petersburg's tourism and service industry. Last month, the City Council expanded a no-panhandling zone to include most of downtown.
The homeless community is concerned about the campaign. Some folks point out that local shelters are at capacity and note that cutting off the homeless will make living on the street more difficult.
"I never ask anyone for money," said Roger Harrison, who sometimes sleeps in Williams Park. "I have some friends who bring me coffee and sandwiches because they are good people. What's wrong with that?"
City officials say panhandling is not only sometimes a nuisance, it also can encourage illegal or unhealthy practices, Abbott said.
"Not everyone out there is a drug abuser or an alcoholic, but some of these folks are," she said.
There are other concerns, Abbott said. Charitable groups or individuals who bring food to the homeless do not have to comply with safety regulations that shelters must meet.
"We don't really know where the food comes from or how healthy it is," Abbott said. "It's just unsanitary."
Blankets and clothing given to the homeless could be left behind on park benches, whereas a shelter would be able to better use the items, Abbott said.
To spread the word, city officials printed green and orange informational pamphlets with the words "give a hand up, not a hand out" and the image of a hand reaching out to give spare change inside a large "no" sign.
The pamphlets are available at City Hall and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce at Second Avenue N.
When a homeless person asks for money, business owners and residents can give them a pamphlet instead, which lists more than a dozen local shelters, Abbott said.
Community leaders acknowledge that saying no to someone in need can be difficult.
"At the same time, we don't want to be taken advantage of either," said John T. Long III, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber, which hopes to create a homeless fund that would accept donations and redistribute them to area nonprofits.
"This is a way to really help," Long said. "And to know your money is going toward something useful."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.
Panhandling is a serious problem and can be illegal, city officials say. To combat the problem:
- Donate directly to social service agencies that help the homeless.
- Tell panhandlers when they approach to call 211 for referrals to service agencies.
- Report aggressive panhandling by calling (727) 893-7780.