Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday December 18th 2018


Pensacola’s Panhandling Dilemma

By Rick Outzen

The homeless and panhandling have been problems for Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward since he took office in 2011. Several times, he has attempted ordinances to deal with them. Each time he and other city officials have walked away with no lasting resolution and political black-eyes.

The latest anti-panhandling ordinances have generated discussion of a possible federal lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. The two ordinances are up for second reading and final passage at the Pensacola City Council’s meeting on May 11.

Before the final vote, Inweekly wanted to trace the history of Hayward’s nearly seven-year struggle with these issues and help readers understand the context of the new ordinances.

City Hall Campground
Hayward’s first ordinances were primarily in response to Occupy Pensacola camping out on the lawn of Pensacola City Hall. The council debate drew national media attention, which made the issue too “hot” for the mayor and council to handle. The ordinances were tabled and allowed to die a quiet death.

In October 2011, Hayward battled the Occupy Pensacola movement that first lived in the median of North Palafox Street, near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Plaza. Occupy Pensacola, like multiple such groups around the country, was linked loosely to the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York City in mid-September. The group did not have a particular message, but opposed a system they saw as broken.

Mayor Hayward wanted to move the protestors off Palafox. City Administrator Bill Reynolds, Neighborhood Services Director David Flaherty and Chief of Police Chip Simmons met with Occupy leaders and negotiated the group’s relocation to Pensacola City Hall.

However, there was a kink in the move. Citing an existing city ordinance prohibiting the construction of enclosures on city property (Sec. 8-1-7), the mayor informed Occupy that upon their relocation to the City Hall courtyard tents or other outdoor structures would not be allowed.

The Hayward administration agreed to give support by providing running water, electricity, trash pick-up service and portable toilet services.

“I’ve tried, and continue to try, to be respectful of the First Amendment rights of the Occupy Pensacola group, by granting them extended permission to congregate on City property, and by providing sanitation services for the health and public safety of the entire downtown area,” the mayor said in a press release. “However, the current – and growing – number of tents and other structures are unacceptable.”

He continued, “I am happy to provide the group with an extended presence here at the City Hall courtyard, which they have agreed to. But at this point, for the safety of everyone and the respect of downtown businesses and residents, we are going to start enforcing this ordinance as of 5 p.m. Friday.”

The city council disagreed.  On Oct. 27, the night before the relocation, they passed a resolution that allowed Occupy to erect tents and live in them on the lawn of city hall. The vote gave the mayor the power to waive Sec. 8-1-7 for two weeks. He agreed to do nothing until the next council meeting.

In November 2011, when Councilwoman Sherri Myers suggested the council extend the waiver, City Administrator Bill Reynolds said Mayor Hayward no longer intended to use Sec. 8-1-7, but Occupy needed a permit to hold an “event” on city property. The tent issue fell into the lap of Neighborhood Services Director Flaherty.

When Occupy representatives met with Flaherty and staff, they were told a permit was necessary to remain on the courtyard. The city wanted more information on the event to be able to determine a responsible party for insurance purposes. The permit would also require Occupy to pay associated costs for its stay on the lawn, as well as provide a defined time frame.

Flaherty told them, “This increase in population and construction has not only stressed the environment in which they currently reside and greatly increased public health concerns, but has also increased costs and potential liability for the city.”

The Occupy contingent at the meeting—Alistar McKenzie, Nicholas Alford, Gary Paull, Jr. and Rev. Nathan Monk—said their protest was a freedom-of-speech issue, and, therefore, did not require a permit. They also argued that the permit would be cost prohibitive.

Within two weeks, the tents were removed. City officials accused Occupy of vandalism. The doors to City Hall’s restrooms were chained and locked shut and electricity disconnected. The downsized contingent held its ground in a cluster on the sidewalk on the corner of the north lawn, where they would stay until Hurricane Issac in late August 2012.

Meanwhile, Pensacola Police officers began to enforce a new Escambia County panhandling ordinance by issuing warnings to violators.

“It would not be prudent for our officers to immediately arrest people on a new ordinance without first educating them,” said Chief Simmons. “We are going to issue one warning to each violator. If they heed the warning, they will not be arrested. If they continue to violate
the ordinance, we will arrest them and take them to jail.”

Mayor Hayward proposed two ordinances aimed at Occupy and homeless people. He wanted to create Sec 8-1-22 of the city code to prohibit camping on public property or residential property without the owner’s permission. He also wanted to limit how people could use public restrooms at city hall, public library, airport and other city facilities. He wanted to prohibit shaving, sleeping, or consuming food or drink in the restrooms.

At the agenda review on Dec. 12, 2011, Council President Sam Hall had a woman removed when she began to compare the $5 million loan the mayor sought to fund its natural gas expansion with the proposed ordinances.

When Rev. Monk spoke out about Hall’s action three days later at the council meeting, the council president ruled him out of order. Monk refused to budge and stood silently at the podium for three minutes with two police officers ready to escort him out of the chambers. A video of Monk walking out and flanked by the cops went viral, leading to calls for Hall’s resignation. The ordinances were tabled.

Blankets Outlawed
In 2013, Mayor Hayward and City Administrator Reynolds made another attempt to curb panhandling.

In January of that year, Reynolds sent an email to the council relaying the concerns of a woman who said she was frightened when a man approached her vehicle as she prepared to enter Jewelers Trade. The man asked for money and made the woman feel “like I was in New Orleans.”

“I was afraid it was an attempted carjacking,” the woman wrote, “and got out and ran across the street, almost getting hit by a car.”

Reynolds said he wanted to restart the conversation on panhandling with the council.

“I have continued to watch the homeless criminal element in the city commit violations,” he wrote, “and have been personally accosted by an aggressive homeless gentleman coming out of Jackson’s one night.”

In May 2013, the mayor presented three ordinances. One prohibited camping, using blankets in city parks, and sleeping outside; another prohibited washing, shaving, and other activities in city-owned public restrooms; and the third targeted public urination and defecation.

Councilwoman Myers spoke out against the camping ordinance. She said, “The purpose of this ordinance is clearly to target people who are homeless, and I believe that is how it’ll be enforced. I think it criminalizes homelessness.”

Councilman Larry Johnson supported the ordinances.

“What happens, as a councilperson, I start getting calls from people who have problems with the homeless affecting their business and their right to earn money, they feel that it hurts that,” he said. “Can you offer us any solutions to help with those types of situations, because I totally understand the rights of the homeless, etc., but what I struggle with is the people who also have businesses and are trying to feed their families, and they tell me that some of their businesses are getting hurt by some of these different things that are going on.”

Despite public outcry that the ordinances were targeting the homeless, the majority of the council passed them. The next month, the council passed a fourth ordinance that focused on “aggressive solicitation, begging or panhandling.”

Critics urged the mayor and council to address the homelessness issue instead of implementing ordinances that would effectively drive the homeless from the city.  At a town hall meeting before the vote, Mayor Hayward answered questions about the ordinances. Ian Roof, a member of Food Not Bombs, said the laws criminalized homelessness and offered no solutions for homeless people. He said he would like to see the proposal tabled until more shelters were built.

“We want to help the homeless,” Hayward responded. “We encourage – and I’m more than willing to listen to – any kind of other opportunities that you think that we need to help implement concerning homelessness.”

Roger Montague asked, “My concern is specifically will this form a ‘catch-22’ for our taxpayers where there’s not enough shelters, homeless people end up in jail and taxpayers end up footing the bill?”

“We’re already footing the bill,” Hayward said. “That’s part of paying taxes – helping people who can’t help themselves.”

Hayward said he would continue to work on solutions that benefit homeless people as well as taxpayers and businesses. The council passed the panhandling ordinance, 7-1, with Myers voting against it and Councilman Brian Spencer absent.

In January 2014, the city of Pensacola was hit with a bitter freeze that covered roads and bridges with ice and forced the closure of schools. Homeless advocate Nathan Monk started a petition for the repeal of the ordinance banning blankets, which eventually garnered 22,571 signatures.

The media around the country began to refer to Pensacola as the city that tried to outlaw homelessness. The Huffington Post called Hayward the “Florida mayor who supported a ban on homeless people’s sleeping bags.”

Facing re-election and mounting criticism, the mayor issued a statement on Feb. 7, 2014, calling for the city council to repeal the ordinance “after reflecting and praying on the issue.” He avoided mentioning that he proposed the law.

“Last year, in an effort to protect the aesthetics, public health, and safety of our community, the City Council adopted an ordinance which prohibits camping on public property,” said Hayward. “Next week, the Council will consider amending that ordinance to remove the prohibition on the use of cover while sleeping outdoors.”

Hayward tweeted a picture of himself and his wife supporting a blanket drive for the homeless earlier in the day and posted a photo to Facebook announcing the upcoming council’s vote. He said he and Councilman Johnson were working together to establish “an advisory committee on improving human services…comprised of professionals and advocates, tasked with collecting data and producing a set of fiscally-responsible, realistic, and actionable recommendations.”

The “no blanket” ordinance was repealed. The others weren’t. The resolution to form a task force passed unanimously, but it was used to block the council from repealing or modifying of the other ordinances until the task force made its recommendations.

Later, the city council approved hiring Robert Marbut, whom the mayor brought to town for a summit on homelessness. Malbut was paid $30,000 to facilitate the task force and work with local advocacy groups on recommendations.

Marbut and the “Task Force on Improving Human Services” presented their final report to the city council on Oct. 6, 2014, one month before the election.

The report made six recommendations. Two involved repealing and modifying the panhandling and homeless ordinances. The other four targeted how to improve services to the homeless population:
1) Move from a Culture of Enablement to a Culture of Engagement: The goal would be not merely serve the homeless, but to help them “graduate” from the streets.
2) Transform HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) from a “Score Keeper Model” to a “Proactive Case Management Tool.”
3) Increase the number of emergency housing units for families and children.
4) Establish a 24/7 “Come-As-You-Are” Service Center at Waterfront Rescue Mission.

The task force even told the mayor and city council what should be their next steps:
1) Develop and implement an awareness campaign to educate and encourage the overall community to move from a Culture of Enablement to a Culture of Engagement.
2) Make funding to service agencies contingent upon being proactive participants in HMIS.
3) Repeal Sections 8-1-22, 8-1-23 and 8-1-24 of the city code.
4) Explore feasibility of increasing the number of emergency housing units.
5) Explore feasibility a 24/7 “Come-As-You-Are” Service Center at the Waterfront Rescue Mission.
6) Modify code to accommodate emergency housing units for families with children.

Unfortunately, neither Hayward nor the council took immediate action on the recommendations. The mayor won re-election.

The council finally repealed the ordinances in March 2015 after Councilwoman Myers placed it on the agenda. The other task force recommendations were ignored.

Anti-panhandling 3.0
Fast forward to October 2016, two years later. The chairman of the Downtown Improvement Board, John Peacock, wrote a letter to Mayor Hayward and the city council asking for help to address “a significant alarming rate of increase in the loitering and panhandling activity occurring in the Downtown District.”

“We understand this problem is not unique to our community and recognize that this issue is not the same as homelessness which is a significant community issue requiring a long-term community-wide solution,” wrote Peacock.

He said that loitering and panhandling had become a “legitimate public health and safety concern and merits prompt attention.”

The DIB board requested action on five recommendations:

1) Immediate implementation of a downtown police presence (on foot or bicycle).
2) Update the License to Use language to allow enforcement by Pensacola Police upon receiving loitering complaints.
3) Identify districts where loitering and panhandling activities are restricted.
4) Author ordinance language defining activities associated with loitering and panhandling that are deemed unlawful.
5) Development with county and other agencies long-term solutions for assisting the “less fortunate population in our community.”

In March 2017, Mayor Hayward and Council President Brian Spencer proposed two ordinances that were endorsed by the DIB. The proposals created the Downtown Visitors’ District and prohibited the solicitation of donations upon public sidewalks and rights-of-way inside that district.

The Downtown Visitor’ District would be a rectangular area beginning on Wright Street, stretching west to Spring Street and east to Tarragona Street, and ending at Pensacola Bay.

One of the reasons given for the ordinance was stated in its legislative findings: “Panhandling activities impede public use of the sidewalks and public rights-of-way, and adversely impact tourism in the revitalized Downtown Visitor’s District. As well, these activities threaten the economic vitality as well as the existence of a pleasant, enjoyable, and safe environment in the Downtown Visitors’ District.”

Violations would be civil, not criminal. The first offense costs $50, doubling with each subsequent violation up to $400.

The city council delayed the first reading and vote until its April 13 meeting. Mayor Hayward spoke in favor and once again promised to look for ways to help the homeless after the ordinances were passed.

“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.

The city council approved the ordinances, which were drafted by City Attorney Lysia Bowling, by a 5-2 vote, with Councilwoman Sherri Myers and Councilman P.C. Wu dissenting. The second reading and final vote have been scheduled for May 11.

Sara Latshaw, director of the North Florida chapter of the ACLU, told the mayor and council at the meeting that every anti-panhandling ordinance passed since 2015 has been challenged and overturned by the court system. She pointed out the city of Tampa had a similar ordinance creating a special district that banned panhandling, and the courts ruled it was unconstitutional.

“I strongly suggest that you read this decision,” said Latshaw, “because you will be in the same situation as Tampa, and the ordinance will be deemed unconstitutional.”

After the vote, ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jacqueline Azis issued a statement: “Today, the Pensacola City Council voted to strip the neediest members of the community of their free speech rights by banning individuals from asking for public donations.”

She added, “Not only does this ordinance hinder free expression, it also puts the City on constitutionally shaky ground by banning speech simply because some would rather not hear it. It is unconscionable to punish individuals for being poor and for asking for charity.”

Last week, Mayor Hayward went on NewsRadio 1620 to defend the ordinances. He did not believe that the anti-panhandling ordinances were a First Amendment issue, and he wanted to separate the issue of panhandling from the homeless problem.

“Panhandling is a different subject, and I’m glad we passed the ordinance,” said the mayor.

He is prepared to defend the ordinance if a lawsuit is filed.

“Leaders make decisions that are not easy,” said Hayward. “It might not be the most popular decision, but there needed to be a solution.”

Will the 2017 ordinances fare better than the 2011 and 2013 ones? Will the mayor and council ever tackle providing better programs and services to help the homeless? Will panhandling and homelessness be campaign issues during the 2018 election cycle?

Stay tuned.