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Tampa looks at new restrictions on panhandling

Michael Elliott, 41, who recently got out of prison, passes time Wednesday in Phil Bourquardez Park in Tampa. Residents have complained about belongings strewn everywhere, but Elliott says the homeless don’t have much choice.
Published Apr. 28, 2013


Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants to tighten rules on panhandling and other problems associated with homelessness downtown and in Ybor City.

"It's going to be a holistic approach," Buckhorn said. "I don't think we have any desire to criminalize homelessness, but I do think there's a recognition, particularly in downtown, that homelessness and the aggressive panhandling that comes with it and the public nuisances associated with it are increasing."

Police average four complaints a day about panhandling and solicitation, mostly in downtown, Ybor City, East Ybor and the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.

As a result, the mayor said officials are looking at measures "that would largely track some of the ordinances that both Clearwater and St. Pete have passed, as well as some other things we think will be effective."

Buckhorn said he expects a City Council discussion scheduled for Thursday to help define the plan, but new regulations could restrict panhandling near ATMs, restaurants and outdoor cafes, among other places.

That's what officials do in St. Petersburg, which also has a "no panhandling" zone for its downtown and waterfront.

In July, Clearwater approved a ban on sitting on sidewalks and sleeping outdoors, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. In 2011, St. Petersburg began enforcing a ban on sleeping or reclining on public sidewalks.

Buckhorn also is concerned about city parks.

"Some of our parks in downtown literally have become campgrounds for the homeless," he said. "Those parks belong to everybody, and to have people using them as public bathrooms or to sleep is just not acceptable."

Camping at Phil Bourquardez Park, just north of the Stetson University College of Law, this month prompted a Tampa Heights resident to complain to the City Council.

And the Bush Ross law firm, next to the park, has hired nighttime security and put up fences so that its 120 employees feel safe.

The problem has gotten worse in the past six months, said Jeffrey Warren, the firm's managing partner.

"Once that park became popular, it just kept growing in terms of the number of people who came and occupied the park," he said. "That then precluded other people from feeling comfortable using that park."

• • •

Tampa's code already bans panhandling in a threatening, intimidating or harassing way.

If city officials write additional rules, they will need to remember that courts have ruled solicitation to be protected speech.

"We can't ban it outright," Tampa assistant city attorney Rebecca Kert said.

But under federal case law, communities can regulate the time, place and manner of solicitations.

The rules have to be content-neutral, meaning they can't favor one type of speech over another. They have to serve a significant government interest. They have to be narrowly tailored. And they have to leave open alternative avenues of communication.

Consequently, local officials can regulate solicitations like panhandling in three ways:

• For safety. Tampa's roadside solicitation ordinance, passed in 2011, is an example of this. Officials concluded it is dangerous for people to stand on the curb and ask motorists for money. (While the law was widely referred to as a panhandling ordinance, it only addressed transactions between pedestrians and motorists — not the problems Buckhorn is talking about now.)

• In certain limited areas, such as near ATMs, bus stops and outdoor cafes. But there has to be a significant government interest, such as keeping people from feeling threatened when they are approached by a stranger in a place where their freedom of movement is limited.

• In defined geographic areas. In Fort Lauderdale, officials banned all forms of solicitations — including, for example, giving out free samples — on a 5-mile stretch of beachfront,

The city's rationale, upheld in court, was that its local economy depended on tourism, so it needed families to feel safe and comfortable going to the beach.

Courts also have allowed communities to enact local laws regarding certain behaviors — such as sleeping on sidewalks, urinating outdoors or storing personal possessions on public property — but only when there are alternative services offered.

Otherwise, courts have ruled that enforcing outright bans on actions so closely associated with being homeless amounts to criminalizing homelessness.

In both St. Petersburg and Clearwater, city ordinances prohibit sleeping in the right of way — but only when there is space available in a shelter for the homeless.

Pinellas has Safe Harbor, a county shelter for the chronically homeless located inside a former bus building. It houses about 300 people a day.

And in Tampa? The City Council has asked Buckhorn's administration to report on what it is doing to reduce the number of homeless people on the street or create beds for them.

• • •

Buckhorn said cracking down on nuisance behaviors has not been the city's only approach to issues associated with homelessness.

"Particularly for the chronically homeless, I think we also have an obligation to do the best we can to find facilities that are available to house them so they're not having to sleep in our parks at night or during the day," he said.

Over the past two years, the city has participated in a public-private partnership called Steps Forward.

In January, the effort resulted in the opening of Cypress Landing, 23 furnished apartments for the chronically homeless with leases covered by vouchers from the Tampa Housing Authority. An on-site manager can connect tenants 24 hours a day with a nurse or therapist so they stay on their medications, out of jail and away from the emergency room.

And a little more than a year ago, Tampa police assigned Officer Daniel McDonald to work with the homeless full time.

"Basically, I'm a problem-solver," said McDonald, a 15-year police veteran.

He approaches homeless men and women on sidewalks, in parks and even under bridges. He asks what they need to get off the street and, if possible, helps them get it.

Up to three times a week, McDonald drives people to the Department of Motor Vehicles for identification cards. With the IDs, they can apply for jobs and, in one case, avoid eviction.

He has helped them secure Social Security benefits.

He has given people rides to labor pools and other employers.

He has called out-of-state relatives about buying bus tickets home.

He has helped people find affordable housing and veterans' assistance.

Working with LensCrafters, he got one man his first pair of eyeglasses in at least five years. With the glasses, the man began to look for a job.

In a place like Bourquardez Park, McDonald said he tries to focus on those most willing to accept help as a way of reducing the number of people camping out.

If others commit nuisance offenses like drinking or urinating in the park, he can issue them a trespass notice.

Last winter, he said, he did that to two or three people who had been drinking and making lewd comments to yoga classes and people ice skating at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

In West Tampa, he has succeeded in getting a vacant building fenced off so people couldn't squat there.

McDonald said he probably has regular contact with 50 to 100 homeless people and enjoys the work.

"No problem is too big or too small," he said, "because it might make a difference in their life."


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