by Jeremy Morrison
In a move applauded by the downtown business community, but framed by critics as cold-hearted and constitutionally-vulnerable, the Pensacola City Council approved on first reading April 13 a new ordinance barring panhandling from the newly minted Downtown Visitors’ District.
The new ordinance, which still requires a second public reading, would restrict the solicitation of funds along and around South Palafox. The business community pointed to safety concerns and the need to safeguard economic interests downtown, while those arguing against the proposed ordinance pointed to free-speech rights and said the law would effectively “criminalize the homeless.”
Ultimately, the city council voted to approve 5-2, with Councilwoman Sherri Myers and Councilman P.C. Wu dissenting. Although the issue of homelessness — deemed unrelated to panhandling — was not allowed to be breached, Mayor Ashton Hayward noted just prior to council’s vote that once the ordinance had been dealt with the city could turn to assisting those “that desperately need the help.”
“We’re all here to support, obviously whether they’re poor, the homeless, anything that we can do to help, but we’ve got to create a win-win,” Hayward said.
This ordinance, the city’s latest to address panhandling, was triggered last fall by a letter from Downtown Improvement Board Chairman John Peacock, in which he expressed concerns about the impact of panhandling on downtown’s economic success. During the April 13 council meeting, the chairman described downtown business owners as “some of the most philanthropic, caring, compassionate people I know,” and said sheltering downtown via the ordinance would help ensure they remained in the position to contribute to the community, including towards organizations dealing with homelessness.
“The DIB cannot fix this problem. This is a community problem, whether its panhandling, or the other things we’re not allowed to talk about on this agenda,” Peacock said. “The business owners in downtown can’t wait for that magic bullet. This is a first step to protect the core area that we built and we want to continue to grow so the entire community grows and then we can ultimately fix the problems that we have.”
DIB Executive Director Curt Morse stressed safety concerns. He said the downtown area was becoming more residential and needed additional protections. He contrasted the downtown core with slices of Pensacola’s suburbia, and said people “deserve to walk down the sidewalk and not have someone ask them for money.”
“That doesn’t happen in Lavallet, that doesn’t happen in Cordova Park. That doesn’t happen in Scenic Heights, or the West Point Heritage neighborhoods, but we allow it to happen downtown,” Morse said. “It just isn’t safe.”
Conversely, opponents of the measure argued that city officials were responding to the issue in an illegal and inappropriate way.
“I personally don’t like being approached either, but that is the messiness of freedom, and we need that,” said Larry Downs, Jr.
Britt McGowan, a local mother, described to council how she uses panhandling encounters as an opportunity to discuss the issue of poverty with her child.
“Would I rather not have those conversations? Do they make me uncomfortable? Sure,” she said. “But I’d rather not have them because we’ve done something about them, not swept them under the rug, swept people under the rug.”
Critics also took issue with the ordinance’s prescribed penalties. While city council did downgrade the penalties from criminal to civil, the infraction of panhandling still carries the possibility of financial penalties; a first offense costs $50, doubling with each following offense up to $400.
Another point of contention centered on the ordinance’s constitutionality. While city officials assured that the law had been crafted with First Amendment legal challenges in mind, North Florida ACLU Director Sara Latshaw warned otherwise, telling council the legal landscape had changed over the past couple of years and that the ordinance wouldn’t stand up in court.
“It really isn’t up for debate,” Latshaw said. “Every single one since 2015 that has been challenged, every single ordinance has been struck down.”
But Council President Brian Spencer said that he felt confident that City Attorney Lysia Bowling had crafted an ordinance specifically designed to withstand a lawsuit. He leaned on the attorney for assurance, though her assessment seemed a little shaky, with plenty of wiggle room.
“The state of the law is in flux, and it’s not certain, and it is difficult for us to predict if this ordinance will be challenged, or of the outcome if challenged,” Bowling told the council, explaining that the city’s ordinance was modeled on laws in other areas that had successfully withstood challenges, or had yet to be challenged.
After council voted to approve the ordinance, Latshaw stood outside chambers in the hallway shaking her head. She paused for a moment to search for an appropriate adjective — “disappointed” — and declined to elaborate on the specter of an ACLU lawsuit against the city.
“We’re certainly watching what the city council decides to do,” Latshaw said, adding that any decisions regarding a legal challenge would likely be made after the council held a second public reading for the ordinance.
To read the city of Pensacola’s panhandling ordinance, view the ordinance boundary map or the letter from the DIB, click here.