Jacksonville City Council has enacted an anti-panhandling law despite concerns that it’s the wrong move to stop desperate people from asking for cash along roads.
Before the bill passed late Tuesday, a few council members said they didn’t like it or its consequences for people who are homeless, hungry and have no money to pay a fine.
Sixteen of 19 City Council members passed the bill after almost an hour of debate. Reggie Gaffney Jr., Joyce Morgan and Brenda Priestly Jackson voted no.
Gaffney said the law could discriminate against some of his community’s residents and lead to jail time, while the police resources used to enforce it are better suited for handling crime, he said.
“I can see a rise in incarcerations. I can see discrimination. I can see resisting arrest,” Gaffney said. “I am not sure we are doing ourselves a service by passing this bill, at least in my district. … I think we should be pouring resources into seeing why these people are homeless and why they are asking for food and money instead of fining them, arresting them.”
But City Councilman Al Ferraro, who co-sponsored the bill with Councilman Kevin Carrico, said it is not about standing on a corner and exercising First Amendment rights; it is about saving lives.
“I don’t see it as a color issue. I see it as a safety issue,” Ferraro said. “Having people walking around your car, distracting people at intersections, walking around with pets, walking around with children at busy intersections, and you want to talk about public safety? Man, I can’t think of something more dangerous than cars running through there, trying to watch the road.”
The bill points to 2022 statistics showing that Jacksonville was the sixth-worst municipality in the country for the number of pedestrians who died after they were hit by vehicles. A total of 492 people were hit and 48 killed between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2021, the bill states. Complaints to the Sheriff’s Office about panhandling increased to more than 2,500 in 2021.
The bill as filed prohibited anyone from stopping or standing in a median unless they were crossing the road. The bill also didn’t allow any use of public right of way for commercial activity. Nor could people interact with someone in a vehicle. The person giving money to someone in the median also could be cited.
Speaking Feb. 9 on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross, Carrico said the bill made it illegal to be in a median to panhandle, solicit funds for a charity, sell something or just “hang out” because it is a dangerous place to be.
Discussion on the bill continued Tuesday night in the City Council chambers.
Libertarian Party member Marcus Reader voiced concerns during the public comment period earlier in the evening. Calling it an unchristian law, he related the parable of the Good Samaritan helping someone on the side of the road, until “they were both attacked by JSO.”
“This is the story that would be told in Jacksonville if you passed this law on panhandling,” Reader said. “This is a law that Christ himself would be against. Do the Christian thing and do not pass this law about panhandling. ”
Jacksonville attorney Alvin Barlow was another of a few people who spoke against the bill before the vote. After asking audience members to stand up if they have been or are homeless, which earned a rebuke from the council president, Barlow asked lawmakers to “do the right thing.”
“Do you think this law is going to stop people from panhandling — people who are starving, people who have children to feed?,” Barlow asked. “You are highly mistaken. Within one year you are going to see that this is not doing anything but pouring gasoline on a match. … You cannot legislate a person’s behavior — only God can do that.”
When it came time to vote on the bill, an updated version was introduced with multiple changes. That included modifying the permitting process, which would allow charitable fundraising for familiar groups like firefighters. The bill also sets up permitting for indigent persons and other noncommercial solicitors. It reduces the age of allowed solicitation from 21 to 18 and expands regulation of pedestrians walking in a roadway to also include those riding animals.
Exemptions now include law enforcement, fire and rescue or other government employees or contractors who are working in medians. Newspaper street sales are allowed. It designates a 30-day public education period with only warnings being issued. It also set up a civil penalty of up to $100 for violators, who could face jail time after multiple tickets.
Carrico said the bill is “not an attack on homelessness” and doesn’t outlaw panhandling.
“This basically is a mechanism to keep our citizens safer by regulating some of these activities in medians and public right of ways, and intersections where it’s dangerous,” he said. “We can either try to do something about it or we can stand back and let these things keep happening. This is way to just make our streets a little safer.”
Some City Council members said they had concerns about the bill but ultimately supported it.
“I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that we as a council and this administration has done a lot to support the homeless in our community,” Councilman Michael Boylan said. “It’s really a public safety issue that we are attempting to address here and not targeting any particular sector of our community.”
The bill does a good job on enforcement, “but not with a hammer,” Councilman Matt Carlucci said.
“I struggled with this bill a bit too. I admit to being a person who will give money to panhandlers,” Carlucci said. “We are going to really need to step up our game on mental health prevention to keep people from becoming homeless, and I am talking about the panhandlers now.”
But Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson wondered whether the bill was “creating a crime.”
“We have other ways that our JSO resources can be used, and I don’t see that reflected in this legislation,” she said. “Let’s pull back the curtain and see who we are talking about. … I can’t understand for the life of me something that we know will disproportionately impact those in our midst who are the most vulnerable.”
Jacksonville’s legislation is not the only attempt to prohibit panhandling in medians.
The Clay County commission barred any fundraising in the median, even from established groups, in a vote about three weeks ago. The move was designed to ward off any First Amendment challenges.
Clay County leaders believed their approach would survive a legal challenge because it prohibits everyone from using a public right of way “in a way that interferes with the safe and efficient movement of people or vehicles.” The law also bars any physical interaction between a pedestrian and someone in a car on a public road or highway, including anyone who stops or stands on a median when not lawfully crossing the road.
So far, no one has challenged the law legally, county officials said.