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Tampa passes new limits on panhandling, sleeping in public

Published Jul. 19, 2013

TAMPA — The City Council passed new restrictions Thursday on panhandling and behaviors like sleeping in parks or on sidewalks.

One new ordinance bans panhandling in downtown and Ybor City, as well as near banks, ATMs, sidewalk cafes and bus or trolley stops. It passed 6-1, with Mary Mulhern in dissent.

Tampa already banned aggressive panhandling at all times, and asking passing drivers for money except on Sundays.

The newest restriction is aimed at behaviors that may make people feel like they're in a vulnerable position and would have a hard time walking away from a beggar. It does not apply to solicitations that merely involve holding a sign.

A second new ordinance prohibits people from storing their property in public, urinating in public, and sleeping or camping in parks, on sidewalks or in public rights of way.

It passed 4-3, with Mulhern, Frank Reddick and Yvonne Yolie Capin voting no after they failed to delay the vote for 90 days.

Mulhern, who has consistently voted against such bans, said the city has not done enough to put alternatives to arrest in place, and has not identified any property where it could open a shelter.

"We have no commitment from the city of Tampa to do anything other than put these people in jail," she said. "At this point, we don't have a strategy, we don't have a plan, we don't have any property."

Mayor Bob Buckhorn and police proposed the ordinances, modeled on similar laws in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, because of growing problems with vagrants scaring tourists in Ybor City, begging for money at sidewalk cafes and sleeping in parks and public buildings.

Critics said the new ordinances go too far.

"It should not be a crime to be homeless," but "that is the ultimate effect of this ordinance," said Yvette Acosta MacMillan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

But clinical social worker Christina Dougherty, who has worked in areas of mental health, homelessness and substance abuse in Tampa for 13 years, said she supported the new panhandling restrictions.

"I do believe that there are adequate resources for people to get things" they need, she told the council. "I just believe that the Tampa (police) are knowledgeable about these resources and can help people can get to some of these resources."

Dougherty, who lives near Tampa Heights, said she had spent time in parks talking to homeless people about why they're there and has offered coupons for food and rides to get help.

"Many have refused," she said. "Most of them are interested in just receiving money."

Mulhern said Tampa needs to increase its shelter space before cracking down because of court rulings that require cities to provide alternatives if they are going to target behaviors associated with being homeless.

Police, however, have said they conducted a survey in February that showed an average of seven available shelter beds a night in the downtown area.

Moreover, officials said the ordinance prohibits police from making an arrest if there is not a bed available in a shelter.

In a separate vote, the council gave final approval to new rules for keeping backyard chickens inside city limits. Starting Aug. 1, the new ordinance will allow residents to keep chickens at single-family detached homes and duplexes, though not apartments. Residents also must:

• Keep only hens; no roosters.

• Have only one chicken for every 1,000 square feet of land.

• Keep the chickens in a fenced or walled area at all times.

• Have a coop no more than 6 feet high and covering no more than 125 square feet. Coops must meet city setback requirements from neighboring properties.

The council also has asked city staff to report Aug. 29 on whether it can make enforcing the new rules for chickens easier by rewriting a separate city ordinance that designates the entire city as a bird sanctuary.

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