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Partial panhandling ban fails

In danger of losing their livelihood, panhandlers and their supporters stormed City Hall on Thursday to make their voices heard during a public hearing that preceded a vote by the Tampa City Council on whether to enact a partial ban on street-side solicitation.

They did not leave disappointed.

If approved by the council, the partial ban would have made street solicitation on Tampa’s arterial roadways illegal. Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Fowler and Fletcher avenues, which border campus, are some of the main thoroughfares that would have been affected.

However, the council voted against the proposed ban, a reversal of a Jan. 20 outcome that saw the council vote in favor of it.

Council members Thomas Scott and Mary Mulhern voted in support of the ban, with Joseph Caetano, Charlie Miranda, Yvonne Yolie Capin, Gwen Miller and Curtis Strokes opposing it. Miller and Strokes’ votes showed a change of heart after both originally voted for the partial ban last month.

“I drove down some of those collector streets, and some streets I might be (the) only car that was down there,” Miller said. “(Those) people were not making any money selling papers, and I would not take anybody’s livelihood away from them.”

The proposed ban was originally put up for vote by Scott at a Jan. 20 council meeting as a solution to a public safety matter. The provisionary vote in favor of the ban made Thursday’s vote possible.

John Bennett, assistant chief of police operations, spoke during the hearing about the safety issue and provided statistics as a reason why street solicitation is dangerous.

“The police have responded to over 300 calls over 100 days, which is about an average of three a day,” Bennett said. “On top of that, there has been an arrest (of a solicitor) at least once out of every four occasions. That creates risk. It creates risk to the officer, it creates risk to the motoring public and it creates risk to the person within the intersection.”

Darren Driscoll, an independent contractor for the St. Petersburg Times, was on hand with a contingent of newspaper vendors in bright green shirts. Many homeless who otherwise panhandle during the rest of the week make up this work force, he said.

Driscoll said the Times has employed about 158 employees in Hillsborough County and estimated there are about 260 such employees in the county for either the Times or the Tampa Tribune. One of these workers, Sonia Long, spoke during the public hearing. She said she sells papers because she has no other options.

“I, too, have a college degree, and I, too, have worked in corporate America, but it has been because of the economy that I have had to go and find other means to provide for my family,” Long said.

Mack McLaughlin, a Tampa resident who attended the hearing, said he wants to see a ban.

“I support a complete ban for all panhandling on the street. I do not object to the people in green, working on Sundays selling newspapers,” McLaughlin said. “I do not believe we should have people begging for money on the corners, and that includes the fire department and any other charitable organization that should be supported by the community chest.”

Scott said that according to the city attorney’s office, for any ban to be legal, it would have to be uniform for street vendors, panhandlers and volunteers of non-profit organizations.

“It is not our intent to ban those who are selling newspapers, or to ban those who solicit for different charity organizations,” Scott said during the meeting. “But under the law, we have to pass an ordinance that governs everybody fairly and consistently across the board.”

Council member Miranda also expressed support for a complete ban, which would prohibit street vending from all Tampa roadways.

“I will not support a partial (ban) because all it does is nothing but put the problem away into a smaller area called the neighborhoods. It does not generate the same volume of sales that you would need to keep your family going,” he said. “I would support a full (ban), even though I do not like it, but I would support a full over something that is partial.”

On March 2, Hillsborough County commissioners will meet and vote on a proposed countywide ban against street-side panhandling.