Miami commission gives final nod to panhandling ban after tweaks
By Risa Polansky and Ted Carter
Panhandling is now illegal in both a chunk of the downtown core and bustling Mary Brickell Village after Miami commissioners agreed last week, as a way to foster economic growth in the areas, to ban begging.
And the new Miami law could get some enforcement muscle should the Downtown Development Authority, which crafted the ordinance, decide to fund police overtime.
The law, in the works for months, saw some changes during its final hearing.
Originally designed to cover only a small area of downtown and part of Brickell, it now takes in more of what is rapidly becoming a Miami hotspot: Mary Brickell Village, a complex of restaurants and shops that attracts not only Brickell's mainstay office crowd and growing residential population, but also visitors countywide.
The law also no longer defines "panhandling."
Early drafts didn't, but the city included it for the final reading to appease critics who lamented its absence.
It read: "any solicitation made in person in which a request is made for an immediate donation of money or other gratuity from another person."
But upon learning that the broad meaning would also prohibit fundraising efforts such as Salvation Army Santas and the like, commissioners ditched the description, assured by Assistant City Attorney Veronica Xiques that the meaning of panhandling has become part of the vernacular.
Advocates for the homeless have pressed for weeks that the law also ease up on penalties.
Commissioners agreed to give first-offense warnings and to impose fines or jail time — rather than both — upon repeat offenses.
The development authority pledged to post warning signs throughout the no-panhandle zone.
Commissioner Tomás Regalado called also for more police presence to make sure the ordinance doesn't go the way of a dog control law passed years ago.
"There've been no citations issued years after passage," he said.
For the panhandling ordinance to succeed, he said, "there's got to be a commitment from the DDA to use their resources to save the area."
Though the police department assured commissioners it does have the resources to enforce the law, the authority could use its revenues to pay for officer overtime, a police legal advisor said.
Downtown stakeholders crowded City Hall to support the measure, stressing that panhandlers deter customers and stifle economic growth.
Pamela Weller, representing Bayside Marketplace, reminded commissioners of the investment many have made in downtown.
"This is about us being able to grow the money we've spent," she said. "We're not going to do it if we allow aggressive panhandling."
One downtown office worker said he has begun avoiding the Starbucks where he used to grab coffee on the way to work just to avoid a grandmotherly woman outside who every morning asks for bus fare, claiming to have lost her purse.
The problem is not confined only to the areas set by the law, some said.
Marcia Gomez of the Omni mall-based Miami International University of Art and Design asked that the zone run to Northeast 19th Street to encompass the whole complex.
The key is to restrict the use of the ban to that of an economic development tool, officials stressed.
However, "To the extent the Omni is redeveloped, we'd be supportive of adding" the rest of the mall to the zone, said attorney Jay Solowsky, development authority board member.
The goal throughout has been to keep the zone small to uphold its constitutionality.
Even after adding more of the Mary Brickell Village area, the ban still applies to less than 1% of the city.
Carlene Sawyer, chair of the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, insists it's still unconstitutional.
Asking people for assistance is not something the ACLU views "as commercial speech," she said, calling the ordinance "constitutionally deficient" but declining to answer Commissioner Marc Sarnoff's request to share how it could be made sufficient.
Assured City Attorney Julie O. Bru: commissioners should "feel as comfortable as one can be when dealing in the area of the first amendment."