Could St. Pete’s Panhandling Ordinance Eliminate Street Musicians?

That’s one of the big questions I had coming out of last week’s St. Petersburg City Council meeting where council members unanimously passed an ordinance expanding the anti-panhandling zone to include most of downtown. The ordinance goes into effect this week.

Panhandlers and street musicians do share some similarities. They both gravitate toward downtown sidewalks. They both hope to leave with a few extra bucks in their pocket. And they both annoy some business owners and residents.

City Attorney John Wolfe says, “Street musicians are excluded from the [panhandling] ordinance.” St. Pete Police Department spokesman George Kajtsa says a separate ordinance deals with street musicians, limiting their busking to the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Kajtsa says he has no record of any street musician arrest, while panhandling citations occur several times a week.

Of course, the main difference is panhandlers approach people (many times aggressively) while the street musicians strum their guitars, hoping you’ll drop a dollar or two in their case.

But what if panhandlers adopt the same strategy? What are the legal differences between the guy playing Eagles covers and some dude mumbling to himself with a Styrofoam cup in front of him? I’m sure some lawyer could argue they both can be entertaining and neither one is outwardly asking for cash. As police begin to crack down on panhandlers, I can see a new breed of hustlers flocking to downtown, armed with badly sung Stevie Wonder songs and bucket drums, trying their creative luck. Downtown could suddenly fill up with guys like this:

If enough panhandlers turn to the arts, how long until the City Council bans street musicians all together?

Don’t get me wrong: some of my favorite buskers have lived (and worked) on the street. And I don’t think being homeless disqualifies someone from plying his or her creativity on the street. But when the City Council passes a knee-jerk ordinance, attempting to solve a complex problem, it can have unintended consequences, like negatively affecting one of best things about downtown St. Pete — the eclectic street musicians.

(Check out Eric Snider’s profile of St. Pete buskers from last year’s Summer Guide to see some of our talented downtown entertainers.)

I’ll leave you with a homeless singer from Rhode Island who I wouldn’t mind giving a few dollars to.

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