From Pensacola to Miami, Florida cities wrestled with panhandling in wake of U.S District Court ruling

St. Augustine city officials, who will likely be reviewing a draft of a new ordinance this year to help address a panhandling and vagrancy problem in the downtown area, are not the only ones in the state who have tried to tackle the issue after recent court cases struck down panhandling bans in other cities.


A review of news stories from last year shows that it is a problem impacting cities from the Panhandle to South Florida, with some officials taking cautious steps with new laws and others forging ahead with a harder line approach at the behest of voters.

The issue came to a head in St. Augustine in 2017 after residents, visitors, and business owners began voicing concerns about a growing population of panhandlers in the downtown, historic area.

While Hurricane Irma and the development of wooded areas once occupied by homeless camps have been blamed to varying degrees for the spike in the downtown population, another universally accepted factor is a 2016 U.S. District Court case out of Tampa that that struck down that city’s ban on panhandlers in the downtown and popular Ybor City areas on First Amendment grounds.

It was shortly after that decision that St. Augustine stopped enforcing the panhandling ordinance on its books, though rules against so-called aggressive panhandling are still enforced.

Then, in August, Miami’s panhandling ban fell when the appellate division of the 11th Judicial Circuit, relying on the same 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision — Reed v Town of Gilbert — that was used in the Tampa case, said the rule, which, according to a Miami Herald story, was passed to protect tourism and downtown business, went too far in restricting what people can say in public.

“The city argues that it does not discriminate among viewpoints, that no one is allowed to solicit funds whether they are homeless or members of the girl scouts,” Judge Miguel de la O wrote in the decision, according to the Herald’s Aug. 18 story. “This is an outdated view of First Amendment jurisprudence which was rendered obsolete by Reed.”

A week later, the Herald reported that Miami’s city attorney wasn’t planning to appeal the ruling.

Such cases have caught the eyes of officials in Alachua County too where, The Gainesville Sun reported last week, residents have begun complaining that some panhandlers are seeking donations too aggressively or leaving behind litter when they leave the area they had staked out. Law enforcement officials told the paper there is little they can do.

“We have gotten calls and numerous messages through social media with people complaining about it. Just about anywhere you go there is a noticeable increase in panhandling activity,” Alachua County sheriff’s spokesman Art Forgey said in the Dec. 26 story. “As long as they are on public property, we are not doing anything about it. Deputies just go on — unless they have a complaint, there is nothing they can do.”

The city of Gainesville has panhandling ordinances in place, but the Gainesville Police Department is not enforcing them due to federal court rulings, Gainesville Police spokesman Ben Tobias told The Sun in an email.

“I understand the city is in the process of attempting to rewrite the ordinances, but we currently cannot enforce the ordinances as they are on the books,” he wrote.

That’s about where the city of St. Augustine is with its panhandling rules as officials await a draft of new ones from attorney Michael Kahn, though other efforts have already been put in place to help alleviate the problem, including an increased police presence in the downtown area to crackdown on other issues often associated with homelessness like public drinking and urination and fighting.

The city has also helped pay for more beds at the St. Francis House, a downtown shelter, so police can better enforce a no-camping ordinance and has recently secured funding from the Tourist Development Council to help pay for an education program for visitors on how to treat panhandlers downtown.

As panhandling has increased in other areas, though, cities have moved forward, passing new ordinances to address the problem, with varying degrees of success.

Not long after Miami’s ban was struck down, the city of Pensacola avoided a court battle when the city council there voted, in September, to repeal a panhandling ban that was on the books for less than half a year.

A Sept. 14 story from the Pensacola News Journal said that the American Civil Liberties Union was dropping its lawsuit against the city after the council repealed the panhandling ban it put in place in May to prohibit soliciting money in public areas of the downtown area.

That lawsuit, which, according to the story, was filed just days after the city passed the rule, prompted a June vote from the council to repeal the ban.

The swift turnaround came as Councilwoman Sherri Myers, who voted against the ordinance, sponsored a repeal of the ban that gained traction when Councilman Larry Johnson switched his original vote on the issue.

“I had very mixed feelings about voting for this in the first place,” Johnson said in June according to the News Journal. “I’ve done some due diligence and I don’t know if it’s defendable.”

(A Pensacola rule that requires two votes at two separate meetings before an ordinance becomes effective and a subsequent vote to postpone the decision for 60 days put the final vote off until September, the story said.)

And in June, while the city of Lake Worth was forging ahead with an outright ban on panhandling at certain intersections, Orlando officials appear to have been mulling over whether their rules could stand up to the new scrutiny being applied by the courts.

A series of May and June stories from the Palm Beach Post detailed Lake Worth’s movement toward adoption of an ordinance that blocks people from asking for money at three Interstate 95 interchanges and two other busy intersections.

Efforts to enact the rules came as officials said panhandling near busy roadways was becoming a safety issue after people started seeing an increase in such activity in the western part of the city.

A June 21 story said the ordinance defines a “right-of-way canvasser or solicitor” as any person who sells or offers for sale anything or service of any kind, or who seeks a donation of any kind or who personally hands to or seeks to transmit by hand anything or some sort of service.

The definition doesn’t apply to any person who is holding or displaying a lawfully permitted sign, the city said according to the story.

Orlando, too, made moves toward restricting roadside panhandling, but not without a repeal of two old rules that targeted panhandling in the downtown area.

A July 24 story from the Orlando Sentinel said city commissioners had recently voted to end a rule — passed in 2000 — requiring those asking for donations to stay inside blue boxes painted on sidewalks while doing so, as well as a 2007 ban on soliciting after dark.

Three weeks earlier, another Sentinel story that looked at those proposed changes said they were all part of Mayor Buddy Dyer’s efforts to target what officials were calling “unwanted and aggressive” soliciting tactics that included prohibiting panhandlers from receiving donations from cars stopped on public roadways at red lights or exit ramps.

The rules aim “to make sure that stakeholders, businesses, residents and even visitors in downtown are able to go about their desired experience … in a way that is free from any harassment,” Thomas Chatmon, Downtown Development Board executive director, said in the Sentinel’s the July 3 story.

The changes came as Orlando officials became increasingly aware of court cases like the one from Tampa, the story said.

And for good reason, according to Eric Tars, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, who told the Sentinel that every panhandling case that has gone to federal court since 2015 has been struck down as unconstitutional.

“It’s good that Orlando is [considering] repealing its old law, but no city should be passing any panhandling laws at this point,” Tars said. “And citizens of the city of Orlando should be questioning the use of their tax dollars to design and defend these laws instead of addressing the underlying causes of homelessness.”