Homeless charity sues Tampa, contends panhandling laws are unconstitutional

Published May 22, 2015

TAMPA — The nonprofit group Homeless Helping Homeless is suing the city of Tampa in federal court, contending the city's bans on panhandling are unconstitutional and threaten to force it out of business.

Filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Tampa, the lawsuit targets two city ordinances. One, passed in 2011, outlaws begging on city streets every day but Sunday while allowing newspaper vendors to work the curb seven days a week.

The second, passed in 2013, bans panhandling in downtown and Ybor City, as well as near banks, ATMs, sidewalk cafes and bus or trolley stops. It was aimed at behaviors that city officials said might make people feel vulnerable or unable to walk away from someone asking for money. It does not apply to solicitations that merely involve holding a sign.

Taken together, the laws restrict speech based on its content, cover an unreasonably broad area, make exceptions for some kinds of speech but not others, and would require the charity's volunteers to stand mutely with a sign while other conversations go on around them, according to the lawsuit.

The suit seeks an injunction blocking the city's enforcement of the laws.

Homeless Helping Homeless was started in 2009 by Adolphus Parker, has 89 beds at six different locations and provides free meals to about 3,000 individuals per month. It estimates it has lost more than $20,000 in charitable donations because of the law.

The charity said its volunteers solicited donations to support the organization before the laws were enacted without any complaint from police. It also said it does not have a problem with the city's ban on aggressive panhandling.

City Attorney Julia Mandell said Thursday she had been served with the case and the city would vigorously defend its laws but otherwise declined to comment on pending litigation.