Panhandling bans pass as state cuts homeless funds
When it comes to the government's handling of the destitute, the penniless and the hopeless, it seems that out of sight is out of mind, homeless advocates say. They point to recent laws that criminalize panhandling as an example to get the poor out of the public view, while doing nothing to get them honest work and into affordable homes. State money that had paid for programs to help the homeless into homes has dried up or is drying up, right at a time when the number of homeless and out-of-work people is swelling in Florida. What is being done? 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 top 10 dangerous intersections – which include sections of Bruce B. Downs, Fowler and Hillsborough avenues. Panhandling already is illegal in Hillsborough County and in St. Petersburg.Why now? Homeless advocates say the swelling of unemployed ranks are putting more panhandlers on the street and that means they are more visible. And that means more people are calling their elected officials to complain. The upshot of that: a new law. Luke a 29-year-old panhandler at the corner of West Kennedy Boulevard and Armenia Avenue, thinks the reason is aggressive panhandlers. He didn't want to give his last name. "Unlike the other people out here," he said, "I'm not like that." The begging ban will alter what he does, he said. "I'm going to have to find me work," he said. He said he's been panhandling for six months, three or four hours a day. During the lengthy and sometimes contentious discussion about the controversial law, elected officials all admitted that while panhandling should be illegal, more needs to be done to help the homeless. Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, said that a lot of state grant money targeting homelessness is drying up. 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 is mingled with charitable donations that are 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, she said, at keeping poor people out of the homeless ranks. It provided assistance to help out-of-work people from losing their houses, stop unfair evictions, help pay utility bills and connect them with employment. "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." The city of Tampa gives the coalition $55,000 a year, she said, and that hasn't changed in several years. Charity makes up the bulk of money dealing with homelessness, she said. Metropolitan Ministries spokeswoman Ana Mendez said that 95 percent of that charity's budget comes from donations, the rest from government grants. Still, she said, the economy is pinching donors too, resulting in fewer dollars coming in. Government had kicked in some, but this year, Gov. Rick Scott axed funding and threatened to close the state Office of 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. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, earlier this year said that over 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. A survey earlier this year estimated that nearly 10,000 people were homeless in Hillsborough County, an all time high that came at a time when state funding is shriveling. The face of the poor and unemployed and homeless has changed over the past three years, said Karl Celestine, director of outreach services at Metropolitan Ministries. He said his department is serving 20 percent more people now than before 2008, when the economy began to tank. "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 benefitting from a service provided by Metropolitan Ministries. He was taking GED classes there this week, eager to get back into the workforce. He was a manager at GameWorks in Ybor City but when the arcade went out of business, it pitched Burkes into the unemployed and homeless ranks. 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." St. Petersburg banned panhandling, but Pinellas County has provided space for shelters that house hundreds of homeless people. The county also has implemented programs to alleviate homelessness. In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn enthusiastically signed the Tampa panhandling law last week, saying it was long overdue. Still, the mayor credited the communities across the bay in how they are dealing with homelessness. "That is a model," the mayor said in a recent interview, "for what we could do here." 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 admitted that panhandling is a symptom of a much larger social malady – homelessness. "You have to treat the symptom," he said, "before it becomes a disease and festers and grows."
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