Panhandlers could get the boot in downtown Miami
Arguing that panhandlers threaten downtown’s future, city commissioners will consider a no-panhandle zone along some of downtown’s most traveled thoroughfares, such as Flagler Street and Biscayne Boulevard.
The move is sure to spark controversy and possibly court challenges, but Miami City Commission Chairman Joe Sanchez says it’s necessary to protect an area that accounts for 25 percent of the city’s tax base.
”People are entitled to a little bit of peace when they’re walking the streets,” said Sanchez, chair of Miami’s Downtown Development Authority, where the no-panhandle idea originated. “There’s areas where you can’t smoke, there’s areas where you can’t drink. We’re a nation of laws, and you need to respect everybody.”
If the new zone is approved, the maximum penalty for panhandlers would be a $100 fine and 30 days in jail for the first offense, $200 and 60 days in jail for subsequent offenses.
Sanchez predicts first-time offenders would likely receive only a warning. ”If you go out there and do it 10 times or whatever, you’re going to get arrested,” he said.
But Ben Burton, of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, questions the need for stricter laws downtown, noting how Miami already has a citywide ban on ”aggressive” panhandling.
”This just moves the problem to another area,” Burton said. “People that are already poor, we’re going to give them a fine and a criminal record. That’s really going to help them get back on their feet.”
Burton said his organization would consider a legal challenge if a new zone is approved.
Though not all panhandlers are homeless, the two groups often overlap.
In the past, Miami has been criticized for how it treats its homeless. In 1998, the city settled a landmark legal case, Pottinger vs. the City of Miami, filed by theAmerican Civil Liberties Union.
Court testimony included stories of homeless people awakened at a city park and put in handcuffs by police while their personal belongings were set on fire.
The settlement bans Miami police from arresting homeless people engaged in ”life-sustaining conduct,” such as sleeping or eating, on public property.
In pushing for a new no-panhandle zone, city leaders are hopeful a previous Fort Lauderdale court victory will strengthen their case.
In 1999, a federal appeals court held that Fort Lauderdale could ban panhandlers from portions of its tourist-heavy beach. The court noted panhandlers could stillask for money in other parts of town.
Some downtown Miami shopkeepers were divided on the idea Wednesday. Would panhandlers move on to other streets, or choose to stay downtown and take their chances?
Jaime Guerrero, a salesman at Digital World at 205 E. Flagler St., believes homelessness downtown has gone down recently. Still, he thinks a ban could help business, as the presence of panhandlers makes some customers uneasy.
”They think they’re going to get robbed,” Guerrero said. “They just bought a $1,000 computer.”
If the commission endorses the plan and a ban withstands any challenges, the city could face a new dilemma: Streets left out of the original boundaries wanting in. Already, some are asking why Northeast 2nd Street isn’t included.