Panhandling law leaves activists begging for change

Sarasota has put up signs reminding pedestrians and motorists that panhandling on major roadways is now illegal in the city due to an ordinance enacted on April 29.

A new law prohibiting panhandling and soliciting along major roadways and intersections in Sarasota went into effect on April 29.

The ordinance had been sitting on the drafting table for months. Back in February of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shot down a preliminary draft for, in their view, specifically targeting the homeless population.

In January, the ACLU sued the city of Sarasota for their previous panhandling law and filed an injunction prohibiting further panhandling arrests for 60 days, claiming the law infringed on the free speech rights of the homeless population.

Under the new law, in addition to panhandling, selling newspapers on street corners as well as the annual “Fill the Boot” fundraising campaign, led by local firefighters, would be prohibited. Advertisers will still be able to wave their signs – the violation only comes into play if there is an interaction between motorist and pedestrian. Panhandling on sidewalks is allowed for now but city officials intend to address that caveat in a meeting later this month.

Signs have been posted to warn motorists and potential panhandlers. Sarasota police officers were instructed to first warn violators and later ticket or arrest those who continue panhandling.

Mayor Suzanne Atwell called it “a big victory for the city” and said this was not “a homeless problem but a safety issue.” Others, like third-year Nicholas “Niko” Segal-Wright were inclined to disagree.

“It’s just another form of classism,” Segal-Wright said. “It’s a way of limiting the mobility of the homeless population.”

Segal-Wright, who is writing his thesis on the criminalization of the homeless and has talked with countless displaced individuals in Sarasota, said his interviewees expressed intentions of getting around such laws.

“One guy told me [the ordinance] would just increase petty thefts,” Segal-Wright said.

According to other interviewees, since it is technically legal for drivers to voluntarily offer money, some homeless individuals restrict themselves to carrying signs stating “I’m hungry” and allowing good Samaritans to interpret that as an outreach for charity, as an alternative to breaking the law by asking for donations outright.

Segal-Wright rejects the notion that panhandling is a safety hazard, stating that jaywalking is just as dangerous and a lot more common, yet penalties for this behavior are rarely imposed.

Michael Barfield, legal chairman for the Sarasota chapter of the ACLU called the new law “flatly unconstitutional.” The ACLU intends to keep tabs on the enforcement of the new ordinance to gauge whether the law infringes on the rights of the homeless.

City officials are confident that the new law will withstand any legal challenges. They hope to model its enforcement after a similar ordinance that was successfully enacted in St. Petersburg three years ago. The Tampa Bay area is currently working on its own set of panhandling restrictions.

Despite the backlash from social justice groups, Sarasota residents have responded favorably to the ordinance.

“It’s about time,” Benny, who declined to give his last name, said. “Panhandling has gotten out of hand in Sarasota.” Benny has been a resident of the city for 47 years.

Others agree with Mayor Atwell’s concerns.

“It’s a traffic hazard for one thing,” Charlie, a resident of Sarasota since 1954 who also declined to give his last name, said.

The first arrest made headlines on May 2 when 28-year-old Jason Babb was taken into custody by police. According to records, this was Babb’s 31st arrest for similar grievances.

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