Tampa council OKs ban on aggressive panhandling
TAMPA - The Tampa City Council approved twin ordinances Thursday aimed at curbing objectionable behavior by the city's homeless residents.
Council members voted 6-1 to ban aggressive panhandling at bus stops, banks and restaurants in the downtown core and Ybor City.
On a close 4-3 vote, they also approved a companion measure banning camping in city parks, urinating and defecating in public and storing personal belonging in public spaces.
The ordinance targets the city's 700 or so chronically homeless, who often refuse assistance or leave shelters. The new rules would let police arrest homeless persons after their third refusal of help, but only if they're refusing help that's available.
If the city has no place for homeless offenders to go for shelter, for example, they can't be arrested, said Capt. Marc Hamlin, who oversees policing in downtown.
The second ordinance prompted a 90-minute debate over how well the Tampa region is addressing the needs of the homeless.
Supporters of the ordinance said the regulations will give the Tampa Police Department more leverage when trying to get homeless people help. Opponents said it criminalizes homelessness without solving the problem.
"I totally applaud all the efforts they're talking about," said homeless advocate Troy Kluft. "But they see the visibility of the homeless people being the problem."
Councilwoman Mary Mulhern voted against both ordinances.
She said she voted against the panhandling ban because she said it blocks people who need help from asking for it.
"I don't think that we're at the point we can criminalize asking for help on the street," Mulhern said.
While the panhandling ban passed with little debate, Mulhern joined Council members Frank Reddick and Yvonne Yolie Capin in an effort to delay action on the public camping ban, saying the city needs to provide more facilities before arresting people for not using them.
"For the people that are on the street, we haven't made any changes," Mulhern said. "At this point, we don't have a strategy, we don't have a plan, we don't have any property. We don't have a plan."
Tampa's efforts to address its homeless problem is complicated.
Federal funds for housing homeless people have been dropping years and will take a large hit in the 2014 budget thanks in part of the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester.
While homeless people congregate in the city, Hillsborough County has for decades been the primarily source of social services. The city must coordinate its efforts with the county and non-profit agencies such as the Salvation Army and the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County to find solutions.
Councilwoman Lisa Montelione praised the cooperation across government and non-profit agencies to address homelessness.
Last year, the county and city renovated a 24-unit apartment complex in North Tampa with the help of some of the city's high-profile residents to provide housing for some homeless people.
"There are a lot of positive things coming," Montelione said. "It pains me to see the conversation take a negative direction."