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Tampa panhandling banned as of Nov. 1

TAMPA - Lisa Chapman wasn't standing on the corner of North 22nd Street and East Hillsborough Avenue for six hours on Thursday because she wanted to be there. The 40-year-old woman was trying to collect at least $10 so she could spend the night in a downtown shelter. Anything more might buy her something to eat. Her career in begging is just one week old. "I hate it," she said Thursday afternoon. "This is humiliating."
She's homeless, having spent the past two nights on the street, unemployed and at the end of her rope. Come Nov. 1, if she continues to do what she's doing, she will become Tampa's newest kind of criminal. Starting then, panhandling on Tampa streets will be a crime, under an ordinance adopted Thursday morning by a 4-1 vote of the Tampa City Council. The ordinance bans panhandling, which in recent years has grown into a regular sight along city intersections. The ordinance prohibits street-side solicitations six days a week, leaving Sunday as the only day the practice will be allowed. Chapman is eager to get off the street corner. She said she is capable of working and has job applications in all over town. A few miles away, Paula Johnson sat on a bus-stop bench on North Florida Avenue. "I'm hungry," she said. She said she gets a government check that is eaten up immediately buying medication that isn't covered by Medicaid. She's been homeless for a year. "I sleep in a friend's truck," the 52-year-old said. She doesn't know what she will do come Nov. 1. "I guess I'll go to jail," she said. "I haven't been in trouble since 2000." Newspaper hawkers and labor unions that use roads to protest and hand out leaflets are exempt from the ordinance. The city's top 10 dangerous intersections – which currently include sections of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Fowler and Hillsborough avenues – are off-limits to everyone. The ban was given preliminary approval on Oct. 6 by a vote of 6 to 1. Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, who is serving as interim chairwoman, cast the lone dissenting vote. Mulhern continued her opposition on Thursday. "This was not a simple decision for any of us," she said. "I am not going to vote for it. I just feel that it is a beginning to criminalizing poverty. I just morally couldn't do that." The current proposal was hammered out in council workshops and meetings in the past several months; council members have weighed options ranging from partial bans to a complete ban similar to one passed by St. Petersburg City Council last year. The two council members who were absent Thursday, Charlie Miranda and Lisa Montelione, both had supported the ordinance in past meetings. Cab Driver Charles Smalley urged the council to ban panhandlers. "From one end of this county to the other end are panhandlers," he said. "They knock on my windows and bother my customers. "There are families on corners for five years, not because they need money, but because it's a job," he said. "This has got to stop. You've got to hold the line and say no more." Homeless advocates had a different opinion. "It is unfortunate that such a ban has taken place, however, we must continue to work with our city leaders to implement additional programs and services to meet the needs of our most vulnerable population," said Rayme L. Nuckles, chief executive officer of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. "Diligent effort must be placed in developing jobs that provide sustainable wages for individuals living in our community," he said. "This in turn allows individuals to access affordable housing and meet their daily needs." Council members opted to allow panhandlers, organizations that raise money for charitable causes and others to use the city's roadways on Sundays because traffic is lighter then. The exemption for newspapers and unions was based on the view held by most council members that restricting street sales of newspapers or union activity such as protests would hinder First Amendment rights and leave the city open to costly legal challenges. Neighborhood associations and business groups largely supported the ban, while groups that work with the homeless argue it targets the city's poor and desolate population. Donna Crider, a 54-year-old panhandler, pleaded with the council not to pass the ordinance. "I fly a sign," she said, referring to panhandling. "I hurt my back and I can't work. Right now, I don't have any other means but to fly a sign." Tampa police Capt. Keith O'Connor said that between now and Nov. 1, when the ban goes into effect, officers will warn panhandlers about the impending law. He said warnings will be given the first week after the law takes effect. Panhandlers who violate the ban after that will be cited and will have to appear in court where they face a fine, though no set fines are in the ordinance, and a sentence of up to one year in jail. "Our intent," O'Connor said following Thursday's vote, "is not to put people in jail for panhandling."

Tribune reporter Christian M. Wade contributed to this report. [email protected] (813) 259-7760
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