The agency that oversees downtown Pensacola supports a controversial proposed ordinance which, if enacted, would ban panhandlers, street musicians, and charities from soliciting donations within much of downtown.
In a statement released Tuesday, Pensacola’s Downtown Improvement Board said that other cities, including nearby Mobile, Ala. have enacted similar or more aggressive ordinances, with some outlawing panhandling altogether.
The ordinance — scheduled for a vote at Thursday’s Pensacola City Council meeting — would establish a “Downtown Visitors’ District,” encompassing the area south of Wright Street within two blocks on either side of Palafox Street. Within those boundaries, it would be illegal for anyone to solicit donations, either verbally or through use of a sign.
Pointing to what they claim is an “alarming increase” in the amount of soliciting, begging, and panhandling, DIB officials said the ordinance is designed to “promote a positive experience” for downtown visitors.
“The proposed ordinance is not designed to stop street performers or target the homeless, but to protect those who live, work and visit downtown Pensacola from harassment and intimidation associated with panhandling,” said DIB executive director Curt Morse.
Despite the DIB’s comments, city officials confirmed last week that the ordinance, as written, would impact street performers — including those at the weekly Palafox Market event, which the DIB manages — as well as the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations. DIB chairman John Peacock said Tuesday that the city and DIB are working on an interlocal agreement which would allow the DIB to issue permits to street performers for a nominal fee.
Peacock also said that the DIB is in the process of creating a program where downtown “ambassadors” will make contact with panhandlers to notify them of the ordinance and the resources available in the community.
Hundreds of panhandlers have been arrested in downtown Mobile under a similar ordinance that’s been on that city’s books since 2010. Unlike Mobile, however, enforcement of the Pensacola ordinance, if approved, would be handled through civil citations and fines. First offenses would come with a $50 fine, with the fines doubling on subsequent citations, first to $100, then to $200, and finally to $400 on fourth and further offenses.
Opponents have attacked the proposed ordinance as anti-homeless and possibly unconstitutional.
“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.”
The Pensacola City Council is scheduled to meet beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 9 on the first floor of Pensacola City Hall, located at 222 West Main Street.