New law compounds woes for homeless
When it comes to the government's handling of the penniless and hopeless, it seems that out of sight is out of mind, say advocates for the homeless. They point to recent laws that criminalize panhandling as an effort to get the poor out of public view while doing nothing to get them work or affordable housing. Meanwhile, state money for programs to help house the homeless has dried up or is drying up as the number of homeless and out-of-work people in Florida swells. Starting Tuesday, asking motorists for money on Tampa street corners will be illegal except on Sundays. Panhandling will be prohibited seven days a week at the city's 10 most dangerous intersections, which includes sections of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Fowler and Hillsborough avenues. Panhandling already is illegal in Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg.Why now? Advocates for the homeless say high unemployment has put more panhandlers on the street, and that means they are more visible. That also means more people are calling elected officials to complain. The upshot of that: Tampa's new law. Luke, a 29-year-old seen panhandling at West Kennedy Boulevard and Armenia Avenue who didn't want to give his last name, says he's been doing it for six months, three to four hours a day. Luke thinks the city's new law is a reaction to aggressive panhandlers. "Unlike the other people out here," he said, "I'm not like that." The ban on begging will alter what he does, he said. "I'm going to have to find me work." During the lengthy and sometimes contentious discussion about the law, elected officials said that while panhandling should be illegal, more needs to be done to help the homeless. Before this year, the coalition had gotten about $862,000 each year from the state, which made up 16 percent of its overall budget. That money was mingled with charitable donations and filtered to various other organizations. This year, the state is handing over just $75,000, she said. "In Florida," Weikel said, "we have seen social assistance programs attacked." The result is that the coalition will have to get more money from donors. "We have to shift our focus a little bit," Weikel said. She said that as the homeless population bulges, some of the more effective programs are going away. The state's homeless prevention and housing program was particularly successful at keeping poor people out of the ranks of the homeless, she said. It provided assistance that included stopping unfair evictions, helping to pay utility bills and getting people jobs. "That's coming to an end," she said. On the local level, Hillsborough County had donated $200,000 to the coalition in years past. This year: just $90,000, Weikel said. Meanwhile, she said, "more and more people are homeless, more and more families are homeless." Tampa gives the coalition $55,000 a year, and that hasn't changed in several years, she said. Charity is the source of the bulk of money for the homeless, she said. Metropolitan Ministries spokeswoman Ana Mendez said 95 percent of that charity's budget comes from donations and the rest from government grants. This economy is pinching donors, too, resulting in fewer dollars coming in, she said. This year, Gov. Rick Scott threatened to close the state Office on Homelessness. While the office remains open, funding for programs has been slashed by $7 million as part of Scott's campaign to trim the state budget by more than $1 billion and streamline government. Also this year, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said that in the past 10 years, spending on social services "has grown twice as fast as the rest of the budget." That's government out of control, he said, and he has no qualms about prioritizing who deserves to continue receiving the state's help and who doesn't. The frugal approach to government combined some state agencies and eliminated others, and through it all, local social services felt the pinch. The faces of the poor and unemployed and homeless have changed in the past three years, said Karl Celestine, director of outreach services at Metropolitan Ministries. Celestine said his department is serving 20 percent more people now than before 2008.The recession officially began in December 2007. "There was a time when we served the chronically homeless," he said. "Today it could be you. There are a lot of people out there struggling." Michael Burkes, 33, is benefiting from a service provided by Metropolitan Ministries. He was taking GED classes there this week, eager to get back into the work force. Burkes was a manager at GameWorks in Ybor City until the arcade closed, leaving him jobless and eventually homeless. He said his situation is temporary. "It's not a way of life," he said. "It's just one of those things that happen in your life." In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn enthusiastically signed the Tampa panhandling law last week, calling it long overdue. Still, the mayor gave credit to the communities across the Bay for the way they are dealing with homelessness. "That is a model for what we could do here," Buckhorn said. But attempts in Tampa and Hillsborough County to set up tent cities for the homeless have been unsuccessful, rejected by government boards after residents complained about the proposed campsites being too close to their backyards. He called panhandling a symptom of a much larger social malady: homelessness. "You have to treat the symptom before it becomes a disease and festers and grows," he said.
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