Panhandling debate rages as Tampa prepares to vote

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Tampa attorney Spencer Kass called the proposed ban a solution to the issue of public safety, saying that panhandlers distract drivers and that city streets were not designed for solicitors.

"The streets have to be safe," he said.

Kass named climbing insurance rates, burdened businesses and instances of harrasment as additional reasons to support the ban.

Homeless advocate Linda Karson negated the argument of distraction by saying that sign-wavers and campaign supporters serve as similar disturbances, insisting that it is wrong to ban panhandling when no alternative has been put in place for the homeless and the hungry.

"We feel sympathy for people who lost homes to Katrina, mudslides and floods," Karson said. "But what about people with their own personal storms?"

Karson added that people in bright vests asking for money have many different stories, and to lump them all together as "the panhandlers" gives them no dignity or respect.

Next week's vote will either completely ban panhandling on city streets, or permit the practice only on Sundays, to allow for the roadside sale of newspapers. The former would put hundreds of people out of work, according to Darren Driscoll, of the St. Petersburg Times.

"They don't want a handout," said Gary Steele of The Tampa Tribune. "They want a hand up."

Driscoll and Steele added that in the last five years none of their newspaper hawkers have been involved in an accident.

Both sides of the debate agreed it is important to come up with creative solutions, such as repurposing Hillsborough County's untouched $7 million affordable housing fund, or relocating panhandlers to the vacant downtown courthouse, county center or prison to participate in proposed self-sufficiency programs similar to those implemented by Metropolitan Ministries.

Annamaria Mendez of Metropolitan Ministries said that like other non-profits, the organization is doing everything it can in light of funding cuts, lost donations and increased need.

An estimated 50,000 people experienced homelessness in Hillsborough County last year, according to Lisa DeVitto of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, an organization that can only provide 1,500 beds for the 17,000 homeless on any given night.

Need is rising while help remains stagnant.

Though those who attended agreed overwhelmingly that more discussion is necessary, the meeting raised more questions than it provided answers. Some are left wondering about prioritizing safety for bay area cyclists, of whom more than 20 died in the last year. Others are concerned about the cost of incarcerating panhandlers versus the cost of providing food and housing.

"There are many answers if we ask the questions," Karson said.

After the council's vote next week, courts will decide if the decision is valid and enforcable. The outright Hillsborough County ban was already ruled constitutional.

Residents were encouraged to get involved by calling or e-mailing council members, commissioners and the mayor, or by volunteering for non-profits that help those in need.

click to enlarge A homeless man asks for help on a hot summer day. - Lydia Harvey
Lydia Harvey
A homeless man asks for help on a hot summer day.

click to enlarge A homeless man asks for help in Tampa. - Lydia Harvey
Lydia Harvey
A homeless man asks for help in Tampa.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce hosted a debate on the issue of panhandling today, as the City Council is set to vote on the hot topic next Thursday.

Advocates on both sides agreed that panhandlers should be removed from the streets. The question is how and when to make that happen.

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