Commissioners unanimously approved a new ordinance aimed at improving pedestrian safety while keeping panhandlers off busy Manatee County roads.
By the end of the week, it will be illegal for panhandlers or pedestrians to remain in the median of “highly traveled roads” in unincorporated Manatee. The change comes after public outcry related to several instances of violence by homeless individuals in the area.
The new ordinance bans the exchange of money — or any other physical interaction — between vehicle occupants and pedestrians while the vehicle is not legally parked. It also prohibits pedestrians from “stopping or standing” on a median over the course of two consecutive light cycles that would allow them to cross the road.
With the First Amendment and free speech violations at risk, the county’s plan, notably, does not explicitly prevent requesting money while standing on public sidewalks, but panhandlers caught approaching vehicles to collect donations will be issued a citation.
“Attempts to ban panhandling, while permitting other First Amendment activities within traditional public forums, is unlikely to survive legal challenge,” Assistant County Attorney Kate Zamboni wrote in a Sept. 9 memo to the board.
The county code change has also been requested by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, which worked with county attorneys to draft the ordinance, citing both an increase in aggressive beggars and pedestrian crashes locally.
Commissioner say Tuesday’s approval of the new regulation is one of many steps needed to craft a comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness in Manatee.
“I am very much in support of this ordinance, but we know this isn’t going to solve the panhandling issue,” said Commissioner Betsy Benac. “That’s going to take a lot more work, a lot more discussion, and I know we’ve asked for that.”
The county is also working on implementing additional resources for the local homeless community. Ava Ehde, director of Neighborhood Services, gathered ideas from other municipalities across the state and proposed a few of them to commissioners
One of those initiatives is a work program that recruits homeless residents to perform menial tasks, such as litter cleanup, under the supervision of county staff and deputies for a cash payment at the end of the day. The Homeless Outreach Team would also be responsible for making connections with homeless residents and referring them to social services programs.
Commissioners have not formally approved a work program or an outreach team, but they did seem inclined to begin a new information campaign urging residents to use their donations for local homelessness programs like the Salvation Army and Turning Points.
Once the ordinance goes into effect, drivers or pedestrians found in violation will be subject to citations from deputies. Repeat offenders could be punished with a fine of up to $500 or 60 days in jail.
The county attorney’s office is working closely with legal staff from other local municipalities, such as Bradenton and Palmetto, which are expected to approve similar ordinances to deter panhandling and increase public safety.