1. Opinion

Editorial: Arresting homeless is no solution

Published Feb. 7, 2014

Pasco County should rethink its planned tactic to deal with homeless people by sending them to jail. Public officials are suggesting a misguided policy aimed at chronic violators of the county's six-day-a-week ban on panhandling.

To halt the soliciting along U.S. 19, and, more importantly, silence the complaints from nearby business owners, the county wants to ask the court to jail repeat offenders.

It's an extreme reaction to a narrow problem.

The Sheriff's Office issued 153 citations in 2013 and 31 so far in 2014. But, the targets of the crackdown are just five people who routinely ignore citations for illegal panhandling, decline community service or skip court dates altogether.

In response, the county is considering allocating money to cover legal representation for the indigent offenders, which would allow deputies to arrest chronic violators on a criminal charge, rather than just issuing additional civil citations.

The exasperation is understandable. One person has been issued 53 citations and could have received hundreds, senior assistant county attorney Kristi Sims told commissioners.

But, the criminal justice system shouldn't be expected to solve a social welfare problem. More importantly, the county needs to talk about a broader approach to address shelter, transportation, mental health care and job opportunities as a way to move people from the streets to safe housing, not to jail.

It's not a foreign concept —considering the county is almost four years into a decade-long action plan to end homelessness — but commissioners still seem at a loss as to how to proceed. In a Jan. 28 meeting, Commissioner Jack Mariano asked Sims to involve a food pantry near the intersection of U.S. 19 and Beacon Woods Drive as a potential solution to the panhandling, and Commissioner Pat Mulieri talked of volunteering on a soup kitchen and finding people unable to work because they have no reliable transportation.

A logical place to start would be encouraging and helping the homeless to obtain identification cards, a critical tool for transients in finding a place to live and applying for jobs. Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano said his office issued just 64 identification cards to the homeless in the first half of 2013 compared to nearly 1,000 cards in Hillsborough County.

Likewise, commissioners declined to add code enforcement officers during last year's budget deliberations. The penny-pinching was imprudent considering a key task for code enforcement is ensuring empty houses don't fall into disrepair and attract squatters.

And commissioners should consider the skewed wisdom of another investment in this proposed crackdown. Besides paying for lawyers to represent the indigent, it costs the public $56 each day to house an inmate at the Pasco County Detention Center.

Shooing panhandlers away from major intersections might improve appearances, but it is expensive, inefficient and not a solution. Commissioners need to focus on more than aesthetics in considering how to address homelessness.