Address Tampas panhandling issues

Students would be hard pressed to find a campus entrance that does not bring them face to face with the Hillsborough County’s homelessness epidemic.

Every median at every intersection seems to have a permanent occupant – young or old, male or female – asking for help. Despite the troubles facing the homeless, panhandling should be made illegal in Hillsborough County just as it has been in St. Petersburg.

Panhandlers’ safety is put in jeopardy, and the act places the community at risk as well. Intersection accidents account for 48 percent of injury-related traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These can easily be caused by distracted drivers or people who are eager to catch their attention.

Criminalization, however, is not the best answer to tackle the problem.

Lakeland saw a significant decrease in the number of homeless on its streets after three shelters provided them with meals, job placements, medical care and counseling. Instead of ticketing panhandlers and calling it a day, a moral society should just offer a better alternative.

Criminalizing panhandling is not synonymous with criminalizing homelessness. When people are making hundreds of dollars per week while standing in traffic, it is less likely they’re going to make an effort to find a job or seek help where it is provided. Nonetheless, such help needs to be available.

Rhonda Abbot, St. Petersburg’s manager of homeless services, said to that panhandling “was truly getting out of hand in regards to public safety.” Whether it is due to the city’s new ordinance or the crashing economy, arrests for aggressive panhandling have risen 47 percent in the area, according to the Tampa Police Department.

If the No. 1 concern of law enforcement officers is truly the safety of citizens, then panhandling is a problem that can no longer be ignored.

During a Tampa City Council meeting last month, a proposal to ban panhandling was rejected. Yet, according to the Tampa Tribune, activist and Virginia Park Neighborhood Association President Spencer Kass is pressing the issue through alternative means.

“If we can’t get action from the city council, we have the right to petition our government for change,” Kass said to the Tribune.

To accomplish this, Kass is trying to put a proposal on the Tampa citywide elections ballot in March that would allow voters to decide whether a ban on panhandling should be passed. For the proposal to make it to the ballot, Kass must obtain nearly 18,000 signatures from registered voters by Jan. 14, said Travis Abercrombie, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County elections supervisor, to the Tribune.

Voters should recognize the potential dangers of panhandling and put these concerns into action come March. Until then, the influx of panhandlers in Tampa will most likely stay put on our local street corners.

Erica Lettie is a junior majoring in communications.