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Special report: The homeless struggle

Panhandlers get unwanted attention

St. Petersburg looks at whether tighter limits are needed.

By MELANIE AVE
Published June 12, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - You can find them throughout the city, usually at busy intersections, with their hangdog expressions and pleas for money.

Panhandling is spiraling out of control, some residents believe, and the city needs to do something to rein it in.

"It's pervasive across our entire community, " said Brian Pumphrey, board member of the Maximo Moorings Civic Association, who believes crime is up in the south Pinellas County neighborhood partly because of panhandlers. "The City Council really needs to embrace the issue."

On Thursday, city leaders will once again take up the panhandling issue, for at least the third time in five years.

No action will be taken during the City Council's 1:30 p.m. committee meeting at City Hall, but members are hoping to get a better handle on how current panhandling restrictions are enforced by police and whether tighter limits are needed.

They'll also discuss how other cities across the nation, including Orlando, have restricted panhandlers to "blue box" sections of the sidewalk.

Pumphrey, who said panhandlers station themselves at 54th Avenue S and 34th Street, said he would like the council to prohibit panhandling Monday through Saturday.

The mere suggestion of tighter restrictions on panhandling has homeless supporters upset.

"To criminalize those who are the least fortunate is a crime in its own right, " said Eric Rubin, an advocate for the homeless. "I think they should outlaw panhandling when they stop corporate welfare in the city of St. Petersburg."

For now, panhandling is allowed in daytime hours throughout the city except outside sidewalk cafes, near automatic cash machines, on private property, at bus stops and on public transportation.

A few prohibited areas exist in downtown, including around the BayWalk retail and shopping area, primarily to keep beggars away from tourists.

Aggressive forms of panhandling are prohibited citywide. That is defined as repeated requests after someone says no, approaching a person in a threatening manner, blocking a person's path or touching them.

Council member Herb Polson said he believes further limitations are needed outside of downtown.

"From my perspective, we're getting an awful lot of calls and e-mails from folks expressing concerns, " he said. "I've been told that people try to avoid certain areas of downtown because of it."

At the Walgreen's on Central Avenue and 34th Street, "there are people who refuse to go there because you get panhandled twice on the way in, " said council member Jeff Danner.

City attorney John Wolfe said panhandling is a difficult issue to address since it is a First Amendment right.

In the 1970s, he said, St. Petersburg's complete ban on panhandling was struck down by the courts as being unconstitutional.

It also could be difficult for the council to come to agreement on the issue.

Council member Bill Foster said the only additional restrictions he would support would be to prevent the panhandling of the elderly and minors.

"I'm a stickler for the First Amendment, " he said.

The current restrictions were approved in 2002, at the same time the council banned panhandling at night.

In 2004, the council rejected proposed bans on median sales and solicitations, which was challenged by free speech advocates and the St. Petersburg Times, which hires contractors to sell newspapers from the medians.

Still, council member John Bryan said he wonders if there's more that can be done without infringing on the First Amendment.

"The message I want to send to people is, just please, don't give them any more money, then maybe they will stop, " he said.

"Panhandling is a way of life, but there's too much of it and it's overly aggressive."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 12, 2007, 07:26:18]


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