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Begging draws ire from some businesses

The city is looking into ways to curb panhandling in Ybor City and other areas. So far, no one has any answers.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2003


YBOR CITY -- Mario Gutierrez and another merchant are standing on an Ybor sidewalk.

They are considering the pros and cons of panhandlers.

As they speak, a thin man in torn jeans approaches them.

"Can you help me get a bite to eat?" he asks, explaining, "I'm homeless."

Gutierrez, owner of Island Flowers, excuses himself for a minute and returns with a hot bowl of mashed potatoes and chili from Cherry's.

The man thanks him but continues the pitch.

"Hey, hey," he asks Gutierrez. "Can I get a dollar?"

Scenes like that unfold hundreds of times a day on Ybor's busy Seventh Avenue strip.

Some merchants can't stand it.

They fear that constant pleas from grizzled strangers are chasing away good customers and giving Ybor a bad rap.

They're so worried, they've asked the city to find a legal remedy.

"The problem is significant," says Joe Howden, co-chairman of the Ybor Coalition, which represents businesses, residents and government agencies. "We certainly need as much help from the city as possible."

City attorneys are researching potential solutions but aren't operating under any particular deadline.

"I just have to assess the different cases that are out there and look at our individual situation," says assistant city attorney Cate O'Dowd. "At this point, I can't really give you direction on how we're going to proceed."

Howden says coalition members expect an update from the city March 26. O'Dowd says she has not been told about the meeting.

The city already has an ordinance against aggressive panhandling.

But an individual can't be charged unless a police officer witnesses the act or a victim swears out a complaint, says Howden, who manages the King Corona Cigar Factory. That makes it all but useless, he says.

In some cities, panhandlers are restricted to marked areas set aside on sidewalks. In others, they're given permits and limited to certain parts of town.

Might that work in Ybor? Howden isn't sure.

Marked areas are fine unless they're in front of one's business, he said. And with permits "all you've done is push the problem in another part of town."

"I'm not sure what the solutions are," he says. "But we need to explore everything."

Merchants say Ybor draws dozens of panhandlers -- homeless men, mostly, who ply the strip with hard-luck stories. As the crowds grow, so do the number of people pleading for change.

"It gets annoying," says Lefty Brugueras, a tattoo artist at Shiva's Pain tattoo parlor. "They give you the same line over and over: "I'm moving to Orlando. I'm out of gas."'

At Ocean Drive Fashion next to Centro Ybor, three or four panhandlers come in so often Shannon O'Byrne calls them "regulars."

They smell, she says, but they don't hurt business.

At Silver Edge a couple doors down, Pablo Longobardi disagrees.

"People want to have a nice moment. It's impossible," he says.

Instead, they get begging.

"Give me money, give me money, give me money," he mimics.

Longobardi says he might put up fliers discouraging people from giving the persistent men anything.

They're not harmless, he says. He claims he broke a homeless man's leg after the man pursued him with a knife.

"I left the man crying on the floor," Longobardi says.

Gutierrez at Island Flowers may be in the minority when it comes to city action.

A few years ago, during a string of arsons in Ybor City buildings, Gutierrez asked a homeless man to watch his store. The man "slept in my alley to keep idiots from burning my place down," he says.

The way he sees it, running off panhandlers would detract from Ybor's atmosphere.

"They're all part of the fabric of Ybor."

-- Staff Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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