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Emily Harwell Headshot

Legislating Poverty Away

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In Tampa, Sundays are for football, attending church, and now, panhandling. In October 2011, the Tampa City Council passed an ordinance banning panhandling and soliciting on public roads in the City of Tampa. The ban, which exempts newspaper sellers, is only in effect Monday through Saturday, except in the 10 intersections with the highest number of accidents. In those intersections, the ban applies seven days a week.

The ban was created due to concerns that people standing in the medians and interacting with drivers are safety hazards. However, the ordinance had no data about the number of crashes caused by panhandlers and solicitors, instead merely saying that the City Council has identified them as a public safety hazard. Furthermore, the ordinance does not prohibit newspaper sellers, who walk in the street, stand on the median, and interact with drivers just like panhandlers do. The ban does not say anything about why the council has decided panhandlers are inherently more dangerous than newspaper solicitors, even though their behavior is the same. Lastly, if panhandlers are really a public safety hazard, why isn't panhandling banned permanently? Although the ordinance states that there is less traffic on Sundays and fewer crashes occur on that day, one would think that the City Council would work to protect all drivers from a perceived safety hazard, not only those driving on certain days of the week.

This leads me to think that the City Council is trying to improve Tampa's reputation by hiding the city's problems. Tampa will be the site for the Republican National Convention in 2012 and recently submitted a failed bid for the 2015 Super Bowl. While the City Council may have been attempting to beautify Tampa for these events by banning panhandling, the ordinance failed to move panhandlers off of the streets, thanks to the actions of Bill Sharpe.

Bill Sharpe is the publisher of the Tampa Epoch, a street newspaper that uses homeless and formerly homeless individuals as vendors. The vendors buy the papers from the Epoch staff for 25 cents and sell them for a dollar. Members of the community sponsor each vendor for 25 dollars, which provides for the Tampa Epoch shirt and the city-required vest. According to the Tampa Tribune, over 200 vendors have signed up to sell the paper, which has sold 13,000 copies.

Instead of fixing Tampa's homelessness and poverty problem effectively, the City Council passed a ban on panhandling, a thinly veiled attempt to hide panhandlers from the public eye. What's more, the ordinance did not even accomplish that -- immediately after the ban was passed, former panhandlers were hired to sell a new newspaper on city streets. Rather than working to hide Tampa's neediest residents, the City Council should work to find a viable solution to help them get back on their feet.