Saying something needs to be done now, the City Council on Tuesday voted 5-2 to pass an ordinance regulating panhandling while the city continues to work on a longterm solution to homelessness.
Council members Dixie Newman and Robert Deming voted against the ordinance, asking for a workshop to iron out some of the issues.
“Will it in a sense be authorizing panhandling?” Deming asked.
Newman said Slidell requires permits for panhandling and now has “a ridiculous” number of panhandlers at the interstate exit. “I think we should be discouraging and not encouraging panhandling,” Newman said.
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Residents and business owners came to the council and asked for help. While there are still some issues with the ordinance, Councilman Felix Gines said he knows firsthand what it’s like to be confronted by an aggressive panhandlers. Gines said he and his son were coming out of a downtown restaurant “and we were bombarded by some panhandlers.”
Biloxi’s current ordinance says it is illegal to panhandle in Biloxi, said City Attorney Peter Abide. However, he said, it is a constitutional right for a person to ask for money in a non-threatening way.
Everyone who panhandles will be required to get permit, he said, but the $25 fee will be waived if they are indigent.
“Some of them treat it as their business,” he said. Even if a person has a license to panhandle but does something aggressive, like approach a person at an ATM, “They will be issued a citation,” he said.
Under the new ordinance:
▪ Panhandlers must apply for a license at the Community Development Department
▪ They must wait 10 days for Biloxi police to do a background check
▪ No license will be issued to anyone convicted of a previous violation
▪ Panhandling won’t be allowed between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., or where a sign has been posted on a building or home saying “no panhandlers” or similar
▪ Panhandling won’t be allowed at a bus stop, within 20 feet of an ATM machine, within 8 feet of an occupied vehicle or in a public park.
▪ Panhandlers can’t shout, swear at a person, block the entrance to a building or come within 3 feet of a person unless the person has agreed to make a donation
▪ The penalty is a fine up to $100 or imprisonment in the jail up to 25 hours, or both
Peddlers and solicitors already go through this procedure, and Abide said applying the same regulations to panhandlers protects their constitutional rights.
Biloxi has to step carefully with the ordinance for panhandling and another that was passed that defines loitering.
“Keep in mind we’re under an ACLU agreement right now,” said Biloxi Police Chief John Miller.
The city was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and the settlement agreement that runs through March 2019 says the city can’t jail indigent people for failing to pay their fines.
Miller just returned from a conference in Philadelphia with information about what other cities have done about panhandling, loitering and homeless complaints.
“Every city has those challenges,” said Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich.
Sarasota, Florida, has reduced the problems of the homeless with the “three Es” — to educate, encourage and enforce, Gilich said. With Sarasota’s solution, he said, many of the homeless are trying to make their way home to their loved ones, and they receive encouragement and in some cases a bus ticket.
Miller said Sarasota uses not just the police, but mental health professionals and other social services. There has to be some type of shelter, and the person has to be taken there by a law enforcement officer, he said.
Earlier this year, Gilich proposed leasing the closed Beauvoir school property for a homeless transition center, but the council voted it down without more detailed information about the scope and cost of the project.
Since then the homeless problems have gotten worse in Biloxi, and Gines said, “As of right now we have to start doing something and stop kicking that can down the road.”
A workshop on the new ordinance and the homeless issues will be held following the Nov. 28 council meeting at city hall.