TAMPA - The city took steps Thursday to crack down on the behavior of Tampa's homeless residents, responding to business complaints of aggressive panhandling and people urinating in parking lots.
The Tampa City Council gave tentative approval to two new rules. One measure bans aggressive panhandling downtown and in Ybor City. That means no more asking passers-by for money outside ATMs, restaurants and bus stops, among other places.
The second measure bans living outdoors, storing personal possessions in public spaces and urinating or defecating on sidewalks and parking lots. Repeat offenders could be arrested after three strikes -- but only if the city has provided them alternatives they refuse to use.
The proposal are the Tampa's latest attempt to find a solution to its homeless problem.
Over the past two years, city officials have banned panhandling from drivers on city streets and worked with the county to open a 24-unit apartment complex for homeless people near the University of South Florida.
Tampa Police Capt. Marc Hamlin said the measures debated Thursday will give police some leverage when dealing with the city's 700 or so chronically homeless people, who often refuse help.
"Our intention is not to arrest our way out of this problem," Hamlin said. "This helps us force people to get help when they don't want to help themselves."
Many of the city's homeless spend time between downtown and Tampa Heights, just north of Interstate 275. Tampa Heights is home to the Salvation Army, Metropolitan Ministries and other agencies geared toward helping the city's poor.
But it's also an area on the cusp of revitalization.
Business owners along North Franklin and North Tampa streets told council members the profusion of homeless people in and around Bourquardez Park hinders their businesses.
They told council members it's not uncommon to find people urinating or defecating in parking lots. Buildings have been broken into. Employees are harrassed.
"I'm afraid we're going to lose staff," said Ron Zielin, owner of Off-Site Technology Solutions on North Franklin. "Some of my employees have concealed-carry permits and they're using them because they're concerned about their safety in that area."
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the city needs to focus its homeless efforts on trouble spots like Bourquardez Park.
"We can't have 50 people sleeping in Bourquardez Park every day," Buckhorn said in an interview with the Tampa Tribune this week. "The current situation can't go on. We're going to deal with it one way or another."
On Wednesday, when Buckhorn broke ground on the Ulele Restaurant at the historic Water Works Building, Bourquardez Park, which sits a block away, was empty of its usual homeless contingent. A police car sat in the middle of the park.
On Thursday, the homeless people were back.
Homeless advocates urged the council to have compassion for some of Tampa's most vulnerable citizens.
"Just trying to survive from day to day is a struggle," said Daniel Ferrin, who is homeless. "There is a solution. But trying to criminalize somebody for being a human being, I don't believe that's it."
If the city doesn't want people conducting their lives in public spaces, it must provide them with bathrooms and more shelter, including a place to go during the day, homeless advocates argued.
"How a city treats is most vulnerable is indicative of its greatness, or its lack thereof," said Troy Kruft.