Panhandling Ban Mulled for Tampa Highways

TAMPA (2011-1-20) -

So many panhandlers clad in bright lime-green protective vests have flocked to intersections that the Tampa City Council has taken the first step toward banning the practice. Tampa appears to be following St. Petersburg's lead.

By a 4-3 vote, City Council members approved a ban on panhandling on many of the city's major roads. They acted after assistant Chief of Police Operations John Bennett said increasing numbers of panhandlers are creating a public safety hazard.

"The crash possibility is just one of those threats," Bennett told the council. "There's also the unknown factor, because the drivers don't know who's coming up to that window. This is an unlicensed scenario where we have discovered criminal histories in some of the arrests that I know most people would be fearful if that person were knocking on your window."

Bennett says police saw one call about a panhandler wearing an ankle bracelet. He was found to be in violation of probation on sexual predator charges. Bennett says police have also responded to fights breaking out between solicitors and people selling newspapers in the roadway median. That practice - as well as soliciting for recognized charities - would also be banned.

Councilwoman Yvonne Capin cast one of the "no" votes. She says labling people as beggers or panhandlers takes away their humanity.

"We're all dealing with human beings who sell newspapers, who solicit for charity, who are asking for alms," Capin says. "Everyone in here - they're human beings. And we have to deal with this problem in a strong and decent way."

Councilwoman Mary Mulhearn voted for the ban, but says something has to be done to help out people who feel they have no choice but to ask people for money.

"We also have to do something about the underlying problem," said Mulhearn. "The underlying problem is the economy, is unemployment, is homelessness, is the fact that there aren't services for a lot of people."

The ban would only affect major "arterial roads." Those include Interstate ramps and highways such as Kennedy Boulevard, Busch Boulevard, Fowler Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway. It would not affect panhandling on smaller roads. That's one reason Council member Charlie Miranda voted against it. He says a ban wouldn't just hurt people who are out of work - it would merely move the problem into neighborhoods.

"I want to solve this problem. I don't want to just hide it somewhere for a little while, until after the election," says Miranda, alluding to panhandling becoming a major issue in the upcoming elections for mayor and city council."

Councilman Joseph Caetano also voted no, saying he wants a total ban throughout the city. Only one highway in his New Tampa district - Bruce B. Downs Boulevard - would come under the ban, leaving panhandlers in many of the area's smaller roads.

A ban could also spur many of these people to go outside the city limits. Tampa's problems with roadside panhandling become more acute after St. Petersburg initiated a similar ban last year. And now, Hillsborough County is mulling over a similar ordinance, but that's not expected for several months.

A public hearing and final vote is set for February 3rd.

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