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Florida mayor considers ‘fining the giver’ to stop panhandlers

A Florida mayor has floated an idea to tackle his city’s panhandling problem — but it wouldn’t go after the panhandlers themselves.

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said Monday that he’s open to the idea of “fining the givers” to halt the panhandling problem in the Florida Panhandle city. Robinson made the comments at his weekly news conference while talking about a summit scheduled next month to address homelessness issues in the area.

“It’s already illegal to give money from the roadbed,” Robinson said. “The challenge is, fining the panhandler doesn’t really change anything. But, you know, do we look at fining the giver? Those are all potentials. Those are things that we would look at.”

Robinson said many have complained about the number of panhandlers in the area. He emphasized that the act of giving money to people wouldn’t be against the rules under such an ordinance.

“Let me be very clear: If you want to pull into a parking lot and go give someone money, absolutely, 100 percent,” Robinson said.

But Robinson said giving cash to panhandlers isn’t an effective way to help them.

“We are not helping those individuals by giving money to them,” Robinson said. “You are, generally, all you’re doing are perpetuating the addiction that keeps them homeless.”

Robinson said he’s more comfortable with Good Samaritans who don’t offer cash.

“There are a lot of people that end up giving food, and I get that,” Robinson said.

Robinson said an ordinance fining those who give cash from the road to panhandlers could be enforced using cameras.

A spokesman for local police said state law may already allow tickets for giving to panhandlers in some instances, the Pensacola News Journal reports.

“Let’s say they’re stopped at a traffic light, and the light changes to green,” said Mike Wood of the Pensacola Police Department, according to the newspaper. “And they’re trying to dig change out from under the seat, and it’s holding up traffic. Yes, we could cite that driver.”

Pensacola wouldn’t be the first city to adopt a hard-line stance against those who give to panhandlers: Last year, the City Council in Fayetteville, North Carolina, gave police the power to fine those in cars who give things to people outside their cars, the Fayetteville Observer reported.

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In Fayetteville, panhandling tapered off before the ordinance was even enforced, the Observer reported.

“Man, it’s bullcrap. Nobody gives us money anymore,” said Craig Kennedy, a man who had been homeless for a decade, according to the newspaper. “When I first came out here, everything was great.”

A Pensacola panhandler suggested Monday that the mayor’s proposal was hypocritical, the News Journal reports.

“It was OK when they were running for election, and they were flying their signs and they were interrupting traffic,” James Ford said as he asked for money at a local intersection, according to the newspaper. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

According to Florida’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, Pensacola’s City Council tried banning panhandlers from its downtown in 2017.

Pensacola repealed its earlier ban after the civil rights organization sued, accusing Pensacola of violating panhandlers’ “free speech and due process rights,” the ACLU said.

“Cities shouldn’t use law enforcement as a tool to address homelessness and poverty, and courts across the country have made clear that they can’t ban certain kinds of speech, like panhandling, simply because they might make some people uncomfortable,” ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jacqueline Azis said in a statement after the city voted to repeal the ban.

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