Wednesday, July 18, 2007

St. Pete officials pressed to limit panhandling

It is synonymous with life in major cities: panhandlers begging for money in public places.

But some St. Petersburg residents say public begging is getting out of hand. They want city officials to curb the problem, which is attributed to an increasing homeless population as well as hard economic times.

Advocates for the homeless maintain panhandlers have a constitutional right to ask for assistance and accuse the city of trying to punish rather than help the poor. "They're messing with free-speech issues," said the Rev. Bruce Wright, director of Refuge Ministries who helped establish a tent city for homeless people this year.

St. Petersburg has struggled with the issue for years. Most recently, in 2004, city leaders considered banning all forms of street soliciting but opted against the idea, mainly because of fears about First Amendment violations and possible litigation. A 2002 city ordinance prohibits aggressive panhandling, which includes asking for money in a threatening manner or repeatedly even after being denied.

For now, St. Petersburg police plan more consistent enforcement of existing laws, including a state law prohibiting people from standing in the road to solicit a ride, employment or business. Bennett, though, noted that a homeless man cited on charges of violating that statute was found not guilty last month.

Read the Tampa Tribune story here.


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