Panhandling seems to be on the rise, with no easy solutions
Panhandling is an ubiquitous issue in American cities, and Jacksonville is no exception. A community meeting on what many consider a public nuisance was held Monday between members of the Jacksonville City Council, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the Office of General Counsel that represents the city in legal matters.
The public meeting was put on by District 2 Councilman Al Ferraro, who is running for mayor, to see what solutions— if any —could tamp down on an apparent local increase in panhandling at major intersections.
The answer, given repeatedly by the Sheriff's Office and the General Counsel's Office, was that few options exist.
The city, and the state of Florida, already have and have had ordinances and laws against panhandling on the books that make the practice illegal both downtown and throughout the Jacksonville metro area.
A Sheriff's Office representative explained that officers have been instructed not to enforce the ordinances, because federal courts have largely found such restrictions to be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.
Federal courts struck down Florida's statewide anti-panhandling law in 2020 after a St. Augustine panhandler was repeatedly arrested by the St. Johns County Sheriff's Department.
Federal courts likewise blocked local panhandling ordinances in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa in 2021 and 2016, while a state court overturned a Fort Myers ordinance that targeted panhandlers last year.
"Once that ruling came out, that's when we decided to revisit and start looking thoroughly at our ordinance system," Gaby Young, the Jacksonville's assistant general counsel, said. "It's not just panhandling. It's camping in public areas; it's camping on sidewalks. It reaches a farther net so to speak."
According to Young, a single misused word in an ordinance passed by the city could result in a wide range of rules regarding people who are homeless being declared unconstitutional.
"Everywhere I go, people are asking us, what are we doing to keep this from happening. And I don't think a lot of people realize that there is a lot of things that we're doing, but we are fighting against where they have their First Amendment rights," Ferraro said. "I think all of us up here are concerned about the rights of our constituents who are being placed in this position where we're worried about them, or getting into an auto accident."
Ferraro lamented that motorists had to deal with panhandlers tapping windows, holding signs or walking around with kids.
"You want to make sure that we're measuring twice and cutting once and coming up with a good ordinance that protects the rights of those that need it and that also makes sure the roads are safe," a Sheriff's Office representative said.
Councilman Ron Salem told the meeting that he'd yet to witness any instances of aggressive panhandling and that most people were respectful, but like most council members he was concerned about instances of kids being used in panhandling efforts and walking through active traffic to solicit donations at stoplights.
While a legal solution seems unlikely, the prevailing message from elected officials and law enforcement was that motorists and residents needed to play a role.
Rather than offer money to panhandlers, they suggest giving donations to reputable local organizations that help poor and homeless residents, and directing individuals in need to those services. That way, they say, the incentive to congregate at high traffic areas, a potentially dangerous tactic, will be diminished.