Law drives some panhandlers from St. Petersburg to Tampa

TAMPA — Roger Morgan is new in town.

So, under a floppy, green hat and 95-degree heat, he can be seen standing at Kennedy and West Shore boulevards, greeting motorists with the sign he used only days ago in St. Petersburg.

“Will take any work. Anything helps. God bless all — Roger.”

Morgan, 49, is among the panhandlers who have moved since St. Petersburg enacted a panhandling ordinance June 13. Worried about police scrutiny and the arrests of about 25 people under the ordinance, they’ve crossed the bridge and are setting up shop in Tampa.

“What are we supposed to do?” asked Morgan, cigarette between his lips, eyes squinting in the sun.

He has plenty of company. By 2 p.m. Thursday, four other people were “flagging a sign” at the same intersection.

Police and local homeless commissions don’t track panhandler numbers. But people on the street say the influx is clear.

Craig Pedersen, 47, a volunteer at Trinity Cafe, which serves lunch to about 200 homeless people a day, said he’s seeing more people on street corners.

“I didn’t know about the panhandling ordinance until someone said it’s getting rough out there,” he said. “There are certain streets that are real busy.”

On the other side of Tampa Bay, Sarah Snyder, executive director of Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, has noticed a drop in panhandlers in downtown St. Petersburg.

“Homelessness is a regional issue,” she said. “It’s not just the city of St. Petersburg. What one area does will impact the others.”

In Tampa, which requires panhandlers to wear bright safety vests, more panhandlers means more people waving brown cardboard signs, selling water or hawking newspapers between commutes.

But for Pat Russell, 63, and others who depend on panhandling for income, it means competition, and less money.

“This is the hardest I’ve ever had it,” said Russell, a Tampa native. “It’s getting worse and worse.”

Trinity Cafe volunteer Lorraine Franza, 69, said she talked to three people in late June who said they came over because of law enforcement in Pinellas.

“They say, ‘We’re just going to stay over on this part of the bay,”’ she said.

Homeless advocates say it’s hard to predict whether an increase in panhandlers will bring a proportionate increase in homeless people.

It’s unusual to see any movement in the homeless population between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties because travel cost is prohibitive, said Lesa Weikel, a community relations manager at the Homeless Commission of Hillsborough County.

But the threat of arrest has some panhandlers moving.

Said Snyder, of the Pinellas homeless coalition: “People will do what they have to do to stay alive.”