Tampa Narrative

(For this as a document with footnotes click here)

November 1991: Hillsborough County Commissioners ban roadside solicitation, both panhandling as well as sales.

January 1992: Tampa City Council begins discussing a similar ‘Beggars Ordinance’, although they struggle to find a way to make it constitutional and have the intended effect. Assistant City Attorney Tyron Brown informs the Council on January 16th that “You can’t say no one in the city can beg, and you can’t have a law against being homeless. Vagrancy is a status, not a criminal act.” One week later Tampa City Council has a workshop on panhandling to discuss a way to tailor a law that would “regulate the vagrants’ behavior” as Brown puts it.

February 1992: Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office begins making arrests. Three of the first four arrest are homeless men carrying signs saying they need help with money or food and the fourth arrest is a man selling flowers.

July 1993: City Council has finally found a law they can pass through the City Attorney and vote into effect on July 23rd, 1993. The ordinance which was aimed at outlawing any threatening or intimidating behavior by panhandlers passes unanimously. It does not make panhandling illegal but prohibits people asking for help repeatedly after being told no, blocking roads or sidewalks, as well as making threats.

August 1993 City Council revisits the question and passes two more ordinances that makes any aggressive panhandling a second-degree misdemeanor that is now punishable by jail time. Many advocates worry that the ordinance gives the police too much power to determine what constitutes illegal behavior and pushes the boundaries of free speech rights.

February 1997: Homeless count numbers are estimated to be about 2,000 in Hillsborough County.

July 2003: Tampa Police Officer Gary Balkcom was investigated by internal affairs for beating up a homeless man outside the Convention Center. Witnesses said Balkcom ordered the man to stand against the wall, then kneed him and struck him with a nightstick. Internal Affairs investigators cleared him of any wrongdoing. When asked about the complaints Balkcom says that the job is tough and sometimes he has to be forceful if people don’t cooperate. He then laughingly shows the reporter a Chris Rock video, “How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police” which was downloaded on his cruiser’s computer. 

March 2004: A Food Not Bombs group gathers at Herman Massey Park downtown to share pizza, stir fry and salad with hungry and homeless neighbors. Tampa police officer Gary Balkcom pulls up around 1:30 pm and informs the group that they needed a permit to feed the homeless. Knowing that the city has designated Massey Park as a picnicking spot one of them replies, “You don’t need a permit to have a picnic,” and shortly afterwards Officer Balkcom arrests Mark Parrish. Over the following weeks Food Not Bombs continues showing up to feed every Sunday and Tampa police make several more arrests throughout March and April.

April 2004: City Council requests a report from the City Task Force on Homelessness. Rayme Knuckles of the Homeless Coalition and Fran Davin report to Council about homeless numbers being on the rise. They briefly discuss the arrests at Massey Park and request that George McNamara, District 3 Tampa Police Commander answer questions about the incidents. He assures them that he had encouraged the group to move elsewhere, such as Metropolitan Ministries or another private property. Sean Harrison tells Council, “We all know what the goal of the group was, it was to make a political statement.”

May 2004: Mayor Pam Iorio drops all the charges, possibly so the ordinances couldn’t face being deemed unconstitutional by the courts. 

June 2004: City Council names Gary Balkcom officer of the month and makes a point to reference his dedicated work on the homeless problem. 

October 2007: Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which has allowed homeless neighbors to sleep on their steps for years, comes under fire from Tampa Police. Father Sean O’Brien says that he was surprised when police started telling people not to sleep on the sidewalk and that they were violating a city ordinance. He comments that they have known about it for years and that he never got an answer about what changed all of a sudden. Tampa police Major Bob Guidara says the situation had spiraled out of control.

December 2007: Pinellas Hope, a program of Catholic Charities opens a 10 acre ‘Tent City’ on land provided by Bishop Robert N. Lynch and the Diocese of St. Petersburg. It is established as a pilot program and only expected to be open for five months.

2008: The economy takes a beating and the Tampa Bay area has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation with 53,000 filing. 

2009: Florida is second to Nevada for the worst foreclosure rate in the country. With swelling numbers of homelessness, massive foreclosures and economic struggles Tampa is set to host Super Bowl XLIII on February 1st 2009. With the economic climate so rough the Super Bowl is being called the “Recession Bowl.” This event has major impacts on both the homeless folks on the streets as well as the Coalition’s capacity to perform its count. Rayme Nuckles, CEO of the Homeless Coalition says that many of their “providers heard a police captain at a meeting say that they were arresting homeless people and holding them in jail.” They are scheduled to do the count around the same time as the Super Bowl and Knuckles asks the State’s office on homelessness to delay its count because of the sweeps and arrests displacing the homeless. The numbers of the 2009 count show an increase of only 34 people since the 2007 count even though they expected a 20% increase. The number could have been expected to jump quite a bit as hotels kick out low paying regulars to hike the prices and room availability for those coming to town for the game. The arresting of homeless people who didn’t move along when the super bowl came might make sense of the disproportionately large estimates of homeless people in jail during the 2009 count at 2,093, in contrast with 567 two years later.

July 2009: After two years Pinellas Hope is not only still going strong but has been approved by the Hillsborough County Commission to open a second location. Council gives the go-ahead with a 5-2 decision. Over the following three months, many neighbors complain with the expected “Not in my backyard” attitude. 

October 2009: City Council reverses their decision in a 4-3 vote which kills the plans of Catholic Charities to create a legal encampment for the homeless in Tampa.

May 2010: Tampa is selected to host the 2012 Republican National Convention.

November 2010: City and County Task Force meets to discuss panhandling problems.

January 2011: City Council discusses panhandling bans and a partial ban is proposed.

February 2011: The partial ban that had been proposed is shot down by five votes no, all of which vote no because it wasn’t a full ban. Chairman Thomas Scott says at one point during the meeting that if he could just single out panhandlers and ban them he would but cannot because his “hands are tied” (by the Constitution). 

August 2011: City Council regroups and initiates the discussion. 

September 2011: Council votes on three connected panhandling ordinances. One of the Council members is out that day, resulting in a 3-3 split. 

October 2011: October 6th (first reading) Council regroups and Charlie Miranda comes out of sick leave to make sure that he is there to vote on the first reading of the panhandling ban that they have finally come up with. October 20th, 2011 is the second reading of the ordinance and they pass a new ordinance that bans all solicitation (panhandling or sales) on major arterial roads in the city on Mondays – Saturdays with an exception being made for newspaper sales any day of the week. 

November 2011: The new ordinance goes into effect and begins to be enforced, almost a whole year before the Republican National Convention will come to town. Just a few weeks after the ban begins to be enforced Bill Sharpe launches the Tampa Epoch, a newspaper for the homeless to sell on the corners under the protection of the newspaper sales exception in the new ordinance.

July 2013: City Council passes two new ordinances. One broadens the places that one could not ask for help to include set distances from ATMs, outdoor eateries, bus stops, and other sections of the city like historic Ybor. This panhandling ordinance is similar to ordinances passed in other cities like Lawrence, KS; Atlanta, GA; or Chicago, IL. The other ordinance would make it legal to arrest someone for sleeping in public or storing personal property in public, effectively making it illegal to be homeless within Tampa city limits.

May 2015 Homeless Helping Homeless has sued the city of Tampa, saying its panhandling ordinances violate free speech rights and have shut off a major source of revenue for the charity.

July 2015: City Council votes to repeal two ordinances. the two were passed together in 2011 as the city anticipated hosting the RNC. The first ordinance is a ban on roadside solicitation and the second was on a law that permitted newspaper sales as an exemption. The exeption for papers was the source of the lawsuit since it was an attempt to differentiate what kinds of expression were ok on our roadways. Council made clear that they want the city to still enforce the similar county laws that ban panhandling.

September 2, 2015: 14 Tampa Police Department squad cars raided Homeless Helping Homeless to execute a search warrant for some tax paperwork. This overwhelming use of force and intimidation tactics seem to be a kind of retaliation for Aldous Parker suing the City for its panhandling ordinances.

September 3, 2015: City of Tampa code enforcement showed up to Homeless Helping Homeless headquarters and condemned the property. They were issued an order to vacate the 106 E Floribraska Ave

September 10, 2015: City of Tampa code enforcement ordered Homeless Helping Homeless to vacate their second property at 410 E Oak Ave.

August 5, 2016: Tampa Panhandling ban found unconstitutional in federal district court.

January 7, 2017: 7 members of Food Not Bombs arrested for sharing food in Lykes Gaslight Park. It's worth noting that they have served in this same park for years and the arrests incidentally coincided with national championship football game being hosted in town. 

The City of Tampa has been walking with, as Nietzsche once put it, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Perhaps it's time we turn this around. 


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