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Pensacola’s Downtown Scrub Down

City Aims to Clear Downtown of Panhandlers, Homeless Advocates Hope for ‘Holistic’ Approach to Larger Issue

by Jeremy Morrison

It’s a perfect Friday afternoon and Henry Hoag is taking a nap. Stretched out on a park bench, enjoying the casual breeze as it dances through the trees along Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza in downtown Pensacola.

With his knees thrown over the metal armrest meant to thwart sleeping on the park bench, the man uses his backpack for a pillow. A public library-copy of Michael Connelly’s “The Black Box” lies open faced across his chest.

Hoag’s heard of the efforts afoot to deal with “loitering and panhandling” in the downtown area. He’s aware of the building conversation between city officials and the Pensacola Downtown Improvement Board about how best to address what DIB Chairman John Peacock has described as “a legitimate public health and safety concern.”

The man sits up, lights a cigarette and explains that he’s not overly concerned.

“They’re not talking about me,” Hoag says. “They’re talking about them, down there.”

He motions to the intersection of Palafox and Garden, where a couple of people have taken to holding signs scrawled onto cardboard and asking drivers for money as they wait at the traffic signal. And further down into downtown’s core, with its sidewalked shops, restaurants and parks. That’s what they’re talking about.

“What they’re really concentrating on is people sitting in front of businesses,” Hoag says. “What cops are talking about is panhandling, down there in front of Plaza Ferdinand.”

Henry Hoag, a homeless gentleman, sits on a bench in downtown Pensacola.

Hoag doesn’t venture down there all that often. He’s philosophically opposed to panhandling — “I don’t think it’s ok at all” — and says he doesn’t appreciate the scene it fosters.

“I don’t go to Plaza Ferdinand because of what we’re talking about,” he explains. “I don’t want to watch drunks bumming money off women pushing their kids in their strollers.”

Peacock says that such activity — the panhandling, the loitering — has escalated in recent years.

“Yes, significant,” Peacock says, explaining that the uptick triggered the late-October request. “We don’t just pick battles, man.”

As the year wraps up and downtown heads into the holiday season, city officials will likely be considering a new ordinance aimed at curbing activities such as “panhandling or begging,” or sitting on the sidewalk or lying on a park bench. The potential ordinance is entitled Regulation of Conduct In The Palafox-Seville-Maritime Park Commercial Corridor.

Peacock is optimistic that action will be taken by the thick of the holiday season. That the downtown core can begin its cleansing before the shoppers and diners descend en masse.

“I would hope so,” the DIB chair says.

But the city of Pensacola has plowed similar waters before, enacting a raft of ordinances in 2013 that critics charged “criminalize homelessness.” And any consideration of the new ordinance being put on the table will undoubtedly be accompanied by a discussion about a larger, more complex matter than a downtown scrub-down: the failure to adequately address the issue of homelessness in the community and tendency to lean toward legislative solutions when dealing with associated issues like panhandling.

“The problem with these ordinances, and it will always be a problem with these ordinances, is that they don’t work,” says local homeless advocate Nathan Monk. “I would hope instead that the city would take a step back and take a look at a comprehensive plan to address homelessness in the community.”

You Can’t Do It Here

Depending on who you ask, this new ordinance the city will be considering may or may not concern homelessness.

“This is not about homelessness,” stressed Pensacola City Councilman Brian Spencer, who also sits on the DIB. “This, to me, is about loitering for a length of time that you interfere with the general public’s rights as well as the property owners’.”

The DIB specifically disassociated the issues of homelessness and panhandling, or loitering, in its letter to the city. It pointed out that “the issue is not the same as homelessness, which is a significant community issue requiring a long term community wide solution.”

To be clear, the DIB is not on a mission to delve into the many layers of the societal riddle that is homelessness. As stated in its request letter, the board’s mission is to “enhance and promote downtown Pensacola.”

“Downtown is in the middle of a huge revitalization effort, which is an economic generator for our community. So, it’s all good,” Peacock said.

But the increase in the number of people asking for money, or sitting on sidewalks or sleeping in doorways, the DIB contends, is screwing with revitalization efforts. It’s threatening the economic engine and clashing with a carefully cultivated image of a live-work-play urban utopia.

“When you have a vibrant economic district, you just say ‘You can’t do it here. You can do it somewhere else, but you can’t do it here,’” Peacock said.

Councilman Spencer said that the DIB request formalizes a sentiment that officials have been hearing from downtown business and property owners for a while now.

“There are property owners and business owners that are asking city council to intervene in a way that restores an environment of safety,” Spencer said.

The councilman relayed his experiences encountering downtown panhandlers. There are some individuals he sees regularly, some he suspects are stoned — “his eyes were so dilated they had no irises” — and some that are “just plain intimidating.”

He’s had constituents tell him they worry about their children coming downtown.

“I’ve heard parents won’t let their teenagers walk around downtown,” Spencer said. “I wouldn’t be proud of the city if parents didn’t feel safe letting their 16 or 17-year-old children walk around downtown.”

The councilman said that he thinks the city should look to other municipalities that restrict such activities in certain areas. He points to Cordova Mall, where retailers and shoppers are insulated due to a no-panhandling policy on the private property.

“They just strictly prohibit it,” Spencer said. “They draw their boundaries around the mall.”

Peacock said that he recognizes that there are constitutional issues at play — “obviously, there’s some rights that people have, and I get all that” — but feels that the downtown area could be separated out and provided additional protections against panhandling, or the more-subjective loitering, without infringing on anyone’s rights.

“There’s got to be a balanced way to do that,” Peacock suggested.

Here They Come

On the second Monday of October, Mike Kimbrel did not celebrate Columbus Day. Instead, he marked World Homeless Day by holding a press conference outside Pensacola City Hall and urging local officials to support an initiative pushing for a state-level Homeless Bill of Rights.

Kimbrel, a local advocate for the homeless, decided that city hall was the most appropriate place to make such a plea.

“That is the battlefield in a way,” he said. “It’s where the laws are passed.”

The homeless bill of rights initiative takes aim at what advocates view as discriminating laws that target homeless people. It seeks to establish protections at the state level.

“If the state says you can’t do these things, a municipality wouldn’t pass these ordinances that say you can’t share food in a public park, they can’t say you can’t camp,” Kimbrel said.

A few years back, when Pensacola joined in a growing municipal trend and pursued a number of ordinances that targeted certain activities such as covering with a blanket outdoors, or washing up in a restroom, Kimbrel began communicating with other advocates around the state. They compared notes and strategized potential remedies to what they viewed as the unconstitutional measures being taken in Pensacola and elsewhere.

“It became an ongoing joke among certain activists, particularly between Pensacola and Fort Lauderdale, about which was the meanest city,” Kimbrel recalled.

Pensacola took heat specifically for its ban on items such as blankets and tents, which are typically used by homeless people for warmth. The city eventually dropped that ordinance in the midst of sever winter weather and a PR nightmare.

In 2014, the city formed a task force to tackle the issue of homelessness. The task force suggested the city repeal some of its ordinances, advising that they likely wouldn’t withstand legal challenges because the area lacked sufficient services for the homeless community.

“There has to be enough shelter beds to house our homeless,” explained Sarah Latshaw, the North Florida director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“There is a longstanding statute,” explained John Johnson, executive director of the EscRosa Coalition on the Homeless. “It came from the Miami area, where years ago there was an ordinance that criminalized homelessness. You can’t criminalize homelessness if you don’t have the resources to deal with it.”

The case was Pottinger v. City of Miami. It’s become shorthand in legal communities and homeless advocacy circles, and basically requires that sufficient services be available in an area before behaviors associated with living outdoors and without a home be targeted as a crime.

“You’re violating their civil right, because people have to sleep. It’s more of a human right than a civil right,” said Kimbrel.

“What you’re essentially regulating is needs. Not wants, but needs. Survival stuff. They may be unpleasant stuff for people to see, but they’re basic human necessities,” said Monk. “If you don’t want to see someone peeing outside, build toilets. If you don’t want to see someone sleeping outside, build beds.”

The city ultimately did not act on its task force’s findings. And the task force itself came to be viewed with some suspicion due to an outside facilitator, Robert Marbut, who preached a model of engagement that involved housing homeless people in a facility that had too many trappings of incarceration.

Marbut, a former San Antonio city councilman, advises numerous local governments on how best to address their homeless issues. His basic model involves limiting what could be seen as incentives — such as handouts on the street — instead directing charitable offerings to organizations tasked with providing services to the homeless community and instituting a shelter environment to house the homeless population in order to be able to get them off the street.

“Essentially renamed jails,” said Monk. “By every sense of the word, you have to go.”

Both Monk and Latshaw ended up getting spooked and walking away from the task force.

“I felt like it was just moving in a direction that I felt very uncomfortable with,” Monk said.

“I got the feeling that the task force was in part trying to get community approval to criminalize homelessness,” Latshaw said. “I didn’t want my name associated, or my organization associated with a task force that seemed to be, at the end of the day, about getting the community to be ok with criminalizing homelessness.”

At the end of the day, it barely mattered. Ordinances, including one pertaining to panhandling, remained on the books and little effort has been made by the city to address the overall issue of homelessness.

“I’ve actually gotten quite disgusted with our entire system,” Kimbrel said.

Recently, the homeless advocate got a bit more disgusted when he learned the city was looking for ways to legally boot panhandlers and loiterers from the commercial core. He got a call alerting him to a conversation during a city council meeting as he was preparing food for one of his homeless food give-aways the next day.

“So, I just cut up vegetables and watched the whole thing,” Kimbrel said. “It’s like: here they come, here come the new ordinances.”

Kimbrel doesn’t make the distinction between the issue of homelessness and the activities that the city is planning to target. They are too intertwined for him to consider a differentiation and he wishes that officials would address the overall matter from another direction entirely.

“They keep using this word ‘holistic.’ That means looking at it from the big picture,” Kimbrel said. “Which baffles me, when they keep looking at it from a law enforcement picture.”

We Dance This Dance

Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers was discouraged to hear about the DIB’s request to rid the downtown area of panhandlers and loiterers. She doesn’t buy the argument that the request is separate and aside from the issue of homelessness, and plans to look at the request “from a constitutional point of view.”

“The problem I have with what they’re going to do, is they’re going to target certain individuals,” Myers said. “I already have a problem with our panhandling ordinance. I think it’s as close to the line as you can possibly get.”

The councilwoman noted that ordinances targeting a specific group — such as the homeless — wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. She hinted at testing any new measures herself.

“I think I’m gonna go down there and dress like an old bag lady — well, I already am an old bag lady — and see what happens,” Myers laughed.

The councilwoman also wonders who exactly will be pursued for loitering downtown. What exactly is loitering anyway? Does the definition hinge on an activity or an individual?

“I’m not in favor of driving people away from downtown just because of so-called loitering. I have a real problem with loitering laws,” the councilwoman said. “If they want to sit down there on the park bench until the park closes, they can sit there all day long. Do we have a time limit? You see how arbitrary that is?”

Based on these constitutional grounds, Myers doesn’t foresee supporting any new ordinance aimed at panhandling or loitering downtown, as such action would inevitably target an underserved homeless community in her opinion.

“They’re going to get a lot of pushback from me if they haven’t come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with homelessness,” Myers said.

But proponents of giving law enforcement additional legislative tools to deal with panhandling and loitering contend that homelessness is an entirely separate, community-wide issue. They are hoping to address specific acts in the downtown district, not an entire community of individuals with complicated issues.

Peacock points out that the individuals panhandling and hanging out downtown are not necessarily homeless anyways.

“Some people are playing the game,” he said, “some folks have needs.”

Johnson agrees. The EscaRosa director said that some people do find it profitable and worthwhile to essentially treat panhandling like a day job: “People that dress down, have a home, pretend to be homeless.”

“The overall perception is that it’s a homeless person that does the panhandling, but that is not true,” Johnson said.

Homeless or no, the director is on board with efforts aimed at curbing panhandling. He agrees with the findings of the task force — which he also sat on — that giving should be directed toward community organizations.

“I’m encouraging our community to provide resources to the non-profit organizations, like mine,” Johnson said, explaining that EscaRosa acts as a conduit to needed services, such as shelter or healthcare.

He said that giving money to someone on the street doesn’t amount to enough to be meaningful — “in most cases they’ll use it to buy alcohol” — and only encourages the cycle.

“The person is encouraged by the generosity of the donor to repeat that behavior the next day and the next day and the next day,” Johnson said.

With that in mind, EscaRosa partnered with the 2016 Leadership Pensacola (LeaP) class on a project that involved placing old parking meters around the downtown area. The meters are decoratively painted and encourage people to deposit they’re money in lieu of giving it to a panhandler. Johnson said the meters were for “pocket change.”

“Right now, this initiative is about continuing awareness for that person that is tenderhearted and wants to do something and the only thing they can do is give three or four dollars,” Johnson said.

The money goes to community organizations that offer services to the homeless. The most significant influx came during the initial implementation, when 38 of the meters were sold, or “sponsored,” at $1,500 a pop and scattered about downtown. Since then, an initial haul in August netted a bit more than $300, but mechanical issues have delayed retrieving additional revenues.

More than generating any serious revenue, Johnson said he’s hoping the meters educate people about alternatives to giving money to panhandlers. That would not only be good for organizations such as EscaRosa, who he contends can better use the charitable funds, but would also ultimately be good for the panhandler.

“You can give, just know that enabling is not the way to empower,” Johnson said. “Some of my friends that are staunch advocates say it’s ok to panhandle. I just happen to disagree.”

Johnson said he has noticed the increase in the number of homeless people downtown, as well as the increased panhandling activity. There are homeless elsewhere in the area as well, but the downtown area, he said, is particularly attractive.

“The downtown area is very therapeutic,” Johnson said, describing the area’s parks and waterfront and sunshine.

In addition to its public parks, downtown is also where the highest concentration of people are strolling sidewalks and eating in restaurants. It’s where panhandlers are more likely to find success, it’s where homeless people may choose to hang out.

In other words, the very reason that the DIB would like to see downtown off-limits to panhandlers and loiterers — its revitalization and growth — is the reason that such activity is drawn to the area in the first place. This is not unique to Pensacola.

“This idea that we’re going to have prosperity that isn’t going to be accompanied by these issues that effect homeless people is unreasonable,” Latshaw said.

But Johnson said he understands the DIB’s request and the motivation behind it. He too has heard of people being harassed downtown by people asking for money. The EscaRosa director paints a picture of a family walking downtown at night as an approaching panhandler persistently requests a handout.

“I have to tell you that I would be concerned,” Johnson said. “Regardless of my advocacy for the homeless, I would be concerned.”

That’s why, he said, the task force decided to recommend leaving the city’s ordinance pertaining to panhandling as is.

“The aggressive panhandling did stay on the books,” Johnson said. “The task force voted, a majority vote, in favor of keeping that ordinance.”

But this new ordinance targets “solicitation of donations,” as opposed to “aggressive panhandling.” And also prohibits “unpermitted commercial activity,” such as street musicians. As well as “lying upon a public seat or bench in a manner that occupies more than the space intended for one individual …”

Johnson cautioned that, depending on its particulars, the new ordinance could be walking a legal tightrope.

“I’m opposed to criminalizing homelessness,” he said.

Referencing the requirement for adequate resources prior to targeting acts associated with being homeless, the EscaRosa director wondered if the new ordinance could weather a legal challenge.

“I don’t think if we did something like that today it would stand Pottinger-compliant,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it would withstand litigation.”

The city has accommodated such a scenario in the draft version of its ordinance. It clarifies that if any one part of the ordinance “is held invalid or unconstitutional,” that fact will have no bearing on other portions of the ordinance.

“We dance this dance every time,” Monk said, explaining that he expects the city to tiptoe up to the constitutional line with any new legislative effort. “All municipalities have learned that you can’t specifically target homelessness because that is illegal.

An Uncomfortable Feeling

Heading out of the downtown core, a homeless man pushed a grocery cart up Palafox and past Polonza’s. In the cart sat his friend.

The pair is use to getting scooted out of the area.

“They’ve done that to us within the past day,” said the man, explaining that police have asked them to leave downtown as well as other areas. “We use to sleep underneath the bridge by Loaves and Fishes and the police came over there and run us off.”

Both said they couldn’t understand any new law targeting panhandling or loitering, which they viewed as targeting them personally.

“We’re so far behind right now, homeless people. To have an idea at all like this — I’m just saying,” the man said.

The pair rolled their cart on down the road. The weather was still nice and they were on their way to one of the hot meals available in town.

But soon enough winter will set in. They plan to pitch a tent. Somewhere.

“It’s that cold and rain we’re trying to look in the face right now,” the man had noted with a smile.

It’s understandable why the DIB wouldn’t want these people with their shopping cart in downtown. Or people sleeping on park benches or begging on sidewalks.

“It does create an uncomfortable feeling when you’re trying to shop and you’re downtown,” Peacock said.

Kimbrel said he understands completely.

“I’m not surprised by the DIB. I fully understand their point of view,” the advocate said. “I strongly disagree with it, but I get where they’re coming from.”

As does Monk.

“No, it’s probably not good for businesses downtown to have someone sleeping outside of their door,” he said. “But you know who else it’s not good for? The person sleeping outside of that door.”

Monk said that instead of approaching the issues of panhandling and loitering — issues he sees as tethered to homelessness — with legislative solutions, he hopes officials try to deal with it from another angle.

“It’s not unreasonable to think we can be the first city in Florida to end homelessness,” Monk said, contending that public resources would be better spent on proactive solutions, such as housing, than punitive measures, such as enforcing ordinances.

“When you talk about homelessness, everyone defaults to the guy holding a beer and a sign on the side of the road,” he said. “But that makes up such a small demographic of the homeless in any community.”

Pulling out his phone, Monk played a voicemail he received the previous day from a woman who was being evicted. She was crying. Her voice shook with panic.

“I’ve called all the shelters,” she sobbed, “and they’re all full.”

Monk put his phone away.

“That’s my voicemail everyday,” he sighed.

The city’s current consideration of a new ordinance isn’t likely to evolve into a conversation about possible solutions to the area’s homeless problem. If the draft ordinance is any indication of the final product, it will stick strictly to the script.

It will sidestep any talk of homelessness, and aim its sights on specific activities. Like panhandling, or hanging out in unsanctioned ways in a defined area.

Like on a park bench. Napping in the sunshine.

But still, Henry Hoag is not concerned.

“The cops got other things to do,” he laughed on his bench in the plaza. “Regardless of what Hayward and city council work up, it’s what the cops decide to do. They don’t have time for that.”

To read the city of Pensacola’s draft ordinance, see the Regulation of Conduct In The Palafox-Seville-Maritime Park Commercial Corridor. regulation_of_conduct_-_palafox-seville-maritime_park_commercial_corridor_10-25-16_ca

To read the DIB request letter, check here: dib-loitering-and-panhandling-request-letter

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View Comments (6)

  • Thank you for writing this article, Jeremy. This is a problem that should be dealt with in a positive manner. Other cities are. Growing up in NOLA, it was a problem all over the City, but not to the extent that it is today in every city all over the world, but especially in this day and time. I could say more, but you could probably anticipate what I would say.

    Keep up your good work!
    Lynne