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Amid what they say are growing complaints from residents, visitors, and business owners about downtown panhandlers, Pensacola officials are proposing new legislation cracking down on what they call “nuisance activity.”

The ordinance, cosponsored by Mayor Ashton Hayward and City Council President Brian Spencer, would establish a “Downtown Visitors’ District,” encompassing the area south of Wright Street and within two blocks on either side of Palafox Street. Within those boundaries, it would be illegal for anyone to solicit donations, either verbally or simply by holding up a sign.

The ordinance would also bar street musicians from accepting donations, city officials confirmed Wednesday. It would also outlaw the Salvation Army bellringers which often set up downtown during the Christmas season. Five Flags Rotary members, including Pensacola City Council member P.C. Wu, traditionally serve as downtown bellringers.

A proposed crackdown on “nuisance activity” in downtown Pensacola would also bar street musicians from accepting donations. (Downtown Improvement Board/Special to The Pulse)

Anyone violating the ordinance would risk being issued a civil citation and a $50 fine. Fines would double on subsequent citations, first to $100, then to $200, and finally to $400 on fourth and further offenses.

“Panhandlers often disrupt the daily activities that occur at outdoor cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, entertainment venues and other downtown commercial establishments by disrupting business and physically approaching, harassing, or intimidating residents, visitors, and tourists in places where it is difficult or not possible to exercise the right to decline to listen to them or avoid their requests,” the proposed ordinance reads.

“Panhandlers also obstruct the sidewalks and rights-of-way located within the Downtown Visitors’ District causing pedestrians to step into moving traffic or to come in contact with other pedestrians, thus endangering their safety and the safety of others.”

Pensacola city officials say panhandlers are adversely impacting downtown tourism and economic development. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

The new ordinance is far from the city’s first attempt to address the issue of panhandling. A much more expansive ordinance was passed in 2013, banning panhandling after sunset and within 500 feet of major intersections, among other conditions. That ordinance remains on the books, though Pensacola police officials have said the law is difficult to enforce.

Downtown Improvement Board chairman John Peacock says the DIB “fully supports” passage of the new, downtown-specific ordinance.

“Recently we’ve seen an alarming and consistent increase in the amount of nuisance activity, i.e. soliciting, begging, and panhandling, along the streets, in the parks, and along the sidewalks and storefronts in the Downtown Improvement District,” Peacock wrote in a letter to city officials. “This activity adversely impacts tourism, economic development, and diminishes the overall experience of those that visit the area.”

Pensacola City Council President Brian Spencer, left, and Mayor Ashton Hayward, right, have cosponsored an ordinance that would crack down on “nuisance activity” in downtown Pensacola. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

But not everyone supports the renewed crackdown.

“This is another attempt of the Pensacola City Council to wield its enforcement powers to target poor and homeless persons for discriminatory and fundamentally unfair treatment,” said Sara Latshaw, North Florida Director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Requests for donations, whether made by an organized charity or the humblest of beggars, constitute expression protected by the First Amendment. The City is on constitutionally shaky ground banning solicitation in the entire downtown area.”

“Instead of focusing on how to pretend that poverty does not exist in our community, we might just address the problem,” Latshaw added.

Nathan Monk is a longtime advocate for the homeless who has argued against the city’s past efforts to criminalize panhandling.

“If our community leaders would empower the same funds that would be used for enforcement of this ordinance towards solutions that have worked in other communities, we could end the need for panhandling,” Monk said. “This ordinance will not stop the systemic problems that cause people to panhandle. At best it will shuffle these folks to another part of town.”

For their part, city officials are confident the legislation could withstand challenge. “The ordinance is based upon federal appellate court decisions which have upheld such regulations in similar circumstances in other locations,” said city spokesperson Vernon Stewart.

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