Panhandling and pedestrian safety are both prominent and continuing issues among communities in north central Florida.
In the past 10 days, three local governments have started taking measures to keep pedestrians safe.
They join Gainesville and Alachua County, which have also enacted ordinances in recent years.
Gainesville in 2021 passed an ordinance that limited standing or stopping on certain medians less than 6 feet wide. That action followed a 2019 pedestrian death at the intersection of Northwest 16th Boulevard and Northwest 43rd Street.
Gainesville Police Department spokesperson Dave Chudzik said the police are in charge of enforcing the ordinance, and they rely mostly on verbal warnings.
“We’ve had success in just people complying at that point to move on over without it escalating or moving on to the next level,” he said.
The wording of the ordinance follows a tiered structure, with the first response being a written warning valid for a year, and subsequent offenses requiring citations, fines and court appearances. A verbal warning does not count as a first response.
Since 2021, GPD has issued nine written warnings and no citations to violators of the ordinance. Chudzik said the department does not track its verbal warnings.
The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners in January passed a revision to its solicitation ordinance that removed words such as “panhandling” and “begging.”
Alachua County spokesperson Mark Sexton said the new language complies with a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2015 and better protects people’s First Amendment rights. He said the ordinance is not a ban based on content of speech, such as asking for money, but rather a ban on the act of standing in the roadway itself.
“Whether you are collecting money for charity or asking for money for food, or any other activity, it’s not activity driven,” he said. “It’s safety driven, pedestrian safety driven.”
Following Gainesville, a 2021 county ordinance also prohibited pedestrians from standing in medians less than 6 feet wide.
The city of Ocala began considering its new ordinance on pedestrian safety on Feb. 7, with a first reading during a city council meeting.
The ordinance mentions that between 2021 and 2022, there were at least 80 incidents involving pedestrians and vehicles. It does not mention how many of those involved solicitation.
It bans actions considered “dangerous use[s] of public rights-of-way.” These include things like stopping on a median less than 6 feet wide or interacting with drivers and exchanging items or money.
The penalty for violating the rule includes up to a $500 fine, up to 60 days in county jail, or both.
Much of the language for the ordinance was copied from a Lee County ordinance passed in 2021, according to Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn. He emphasized that this is not a ban on panhandling, but rather an ordinance designed to protect pedestrians.
“If I reduced one traffic death from a pedestrian getting hit standing in the middle of the road, then that’d be worth my entire career of being the mayor,” Guinn said.
City Council President Jim Hilty said the amount of traffic in the city requires additional protection for pedestrians.
“We have thousands — hundreds of thousands — of people passing through Marion County and the city every day going to work, coming to work,” he said. “There is a certain amount of public safety that’s involved for everybody concerned.”
Chelsea Dunn is an attorney for Southern Legal Counsel, an advocacy group that provides legal counsel to at-risk populations. She said that local governments are adopting more content-neutral language in their ordinances, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re free from potential legal challenges, citing a case from the New Mexico Supreme Court in which an Albuquerque pedestrian safety ordinance was struck down.
That happened despite the ordinance being content neutral and having pedestrian safety as its justification.
“The city hadn’t met its burden to show that the ordinances were still narrowly tailored to an important government interest that was legitimate and not just based on speculation,” Dunn said.
Ordinances that ban panhandling affect people experiencing homelessness the most, Dunn added.
“By making it unlawful to stand near the roadway or on a street corner and request donations, the city is able to decrease the visibility of the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in their community,” she said.
Southern Legal Counsel has not currently filed any legal challenges against any new ordinances, but Dunn said it may consider sending advisory letters in the future.
Marion County commissioners at a meeting on Feb. 7 approved the formation of a Panhandling and Pedestrian Safety Task Force.
The document establishing the task force identifies panhandling as a “significant issue for Marion County.” The task force will include members of city and county government, law enforcement and the state attorney’s office.
At the meeting, commissioners debated over the name of the task force, and whether it should include the phrase “pedestrian safety.”
Commissioner Kathy Bryant said at the meeting that the issue of pedestrian safety should be kept separate from panhandling, but she ultimately agreed to the name change. She said in an interview the task force will work to address panhandling legally.
“We’ve passed ordinances and unfortunately when they’ve been challenged in court, they haven’t held up. So any ordinance that we put in place has to meet the measure of the law,” she added.
A date for the task force’s first meeting has not been set.
The city in southwest Clay County had a first reading of revisions to its ordinance on solicitation on Feb. 6.
The original ordinance defined solicitation as selling products or seeking to obtain customers, subscriptions or orders for products. It required solicitors to obtain a permit, laid out specific rules and regulations, and exempted non-profit organizations like religious groups or scouts from some of the requirements.
In the revised version, all definitions of and specific requirements for solicitation are removed, and instead it bans solicitation on public road ways.
The revisions closely match Ocala’s new ordinance and many others, including the penalty of a $500 fine or 60 days in jail, standing in medians less than 6 feet wide and interacting with drivers.
The second reading and final vote on the revisions is scheduled for March 6.
None of the five Keystone Heights city council members responded to requests for comment.