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Tampa must not criminalize panhandling within the city

A ban outlawing panhandling within Tampa city limits was nearly enacted last month before Tampa’s City Council abandoned the effort. But Hillsborough County commissioners did enact a panhandling ban on all county roads outside of Tampa last week, as the desire to have a uniform ban across the entire county remains alive.

Panhandling bans already exist in the nearby cities of St. Petersburg, Plant City and Temple Terrace.

But Tampa leaders must resist becoming the next city in line to prohibit roadside panhandling, as the City Council’s decision last month will certainly not be the end of the debate.

While safety concerns are the primary motivation behind the ban, Tampa panhandlers are already required to wear reflective vests that make them highly visible to motorists, and it’s illegal to impede traffic flow or engage in other dangerous roadside behaviors.

It’s not yet known if the bans have drastically improved public safety, which is absolutely necessary before local governments eliminate a critically needed source of income for individuals who aren’t just begging for change rather than getting a job.

Hundreds of people take to local Tampa streets every Sunday to sell about 20,000 copies of the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times, according to the Times. In addition, waves of out-of-work or underpaid single parents, college students and others sell ice cold bottles of water and cans of soda on hot summer days. These efforts should be seen as a service to the community rather than an illegal action.

But all of them would be seen as criminals and could face a $500 fine or the inside of a county jail cell for two months if a ban was put in place.

It’s true these financially struggling entrepreneurs may have less money for contributions to local officials’ political campaigns than many drivers who sit in their air-conditioned cars and feel it’s inexcusable that they must experience a brief, uncomfortable moment of eye contact with individuals much lower on the socioeconomic ladder than themselves, but it’s no reason to enact such cruel measures.

“The goal is not to put these people in jail,” Col. Greg Brown of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said to the Times in reference to the ban’s motivations. “It’s to get them off the roadway.”

These bans will remove panhandlers from roadways, but even if it’s not the intention, it will also put people in jail for trying to put food on their dinner tables.

The sole dissenting vote against last week’s decision came from Commissioner Les Miller, the current USF ombudsman, who said to the Times, “I didn’t take an oath of office to put people out of work.”

Tampa leaders must remember their responsibilities are to the entire public, not just those who dislike the presence of panhandlers on local roads.