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Jacksonville wants to rein in panhandling, but there could be complications

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Jacksonville City Council is trying again to get panhandlers off the streets, but a new approach could stifle other fundraising in the process.

Panhandling occurs in every large American city and increases during times of economic hardship. Many residents consider it a nuisance, and panhandling complaints to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office have increased the last few years, with over 2,500 in 2021.

But passing ordinances or restrictions on panhandling is difficult. Both Duval and the state of Florida have passed laws barring panhandling before, but the laws have been unenforced or struck down as violations of the First Amendment.

Florida's statewide panhandling law was rejected in 2020 for constitutional violations, after a St. Augustine panhandler was repeatedly arrested under the statute.

That hasn't stopped Jacksonville from trying.

District 2 Councilman Al Ferraro held a public meeting in May to discuss what options the city had to crack down on panhandling. The consensus from experts, generally, was that constitutional protections made it nearly impossible to do without drawing the ire of the courts.

"I don't think a lot of people realize that there is a lot of things that we're doing," Ferraro said at that meeting. "We are fighting against where they have their First Amendment rights. 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 getting into an auto accident."

Ferraro's new ordinance targeting panhandling, co-sponsored by District 4 Councilman Kevin Carrico and District 14 Councilwoman Randy DeFoor, doesn't actually mention panhandling at all.

Instead, the ordinance looks to work around past court issues by banning unlawful loitering on roadways and "physical interaction between a pedestrian and occupant of a motor vehicle."

The ordinance targets both the driver and would-be panhandler and would hand out a $100 fine to each as a penalty for every infraction, with a fourth violation of the law allowing for an arrest to be made.

If passed as written, the ordinance could ban many donation drives that operate in a similar manner to panhandlers, with support from Jacksonville residents.

"Is this going to be enforced uniformly? There are a lot of different groups that also solicit funds," Dawn Gilman, CEO of Changing Homelessness, said Thursday on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross. "So if this becomes an ordinance, again, my understanding is it would catch everybody, even those things we might generally like more or have less issues with."

Motorists may have noticed the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters, many members of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department standing on street corners with large boots to collect donations for causes like muscular dystrophy as part of their annual Fill The Boot campaign.

Church ministries and youth sports leagues often will have members on street corners near busy roadways soliciting donations for their causes as well.

While the bill was discussed in a public hearing before City Council last month, it has yet to come up for a vote before the full council or any committee. Carrico asked that the bill be deferred from consideration this week at meetings for the Transportation, Energy and Utility Committee and the Neighborhood, Community Services, Public Health and Safety Committee.

That means the earliest council could consider the bill is Oct. 11.

Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity. You can reach him at (904) 358-6319 or Rtroncoso@wjct.org and follow him on Twitter @RayTroncoso.