MELBOURNE, Fla. - Soliciting, canvassing, peddling, begging, panhandling -- people engaging in those activities in certain parts of Melbourne could soon face criminal consequences if the City Council approves two ordinances on its agenda Tuesday night.
The goal of the proposed ordinances is to reduce nuisance activity and other bad behaviors that have prompted complaints from residents and merchants, specifically those in the downtown area, who reported a spike in panhandling and so-called "quality of life" offenses to the council in April.
Florida Today reported that the ordinances were recommended by Melbourne Mainstreet, an organization that promotes the downtown economic area and researched what other cities have done to address similar problems.
"I think that the merchants will be happy the city council has responded to their desire to see a panhandling ordinance in the city," said Casey Gilbert, executive director of Melbourne Mainstreet.
In the past three years, the Melbourne Police Department has received 1,962 complaints of panhandling. And police said there are likely more cases that went unreported. The downtown area, which makes up less than one-half percent of the city's total land area, accounted for 22 percent of those total complaints.
So now, the city council is poised to take action.
The proposed ordinances:
• Ban aggressive panhandling citywide: Aggressive panhandling is defined as asking for money or a donation in a threatening way. That behavior includes making repeated requests, touching or threatening to touch a person or a vehicle, blocking a person's way or impeding traffic, and following someone.
• Establish a zone downtown and specific locations where panhandling and soliciting are not allowed: The 139-acre downtown exclusion zone is bordered by Strawbridge Avenue on the north, Melbourne Avenue on the south, the base of the Melbourne Causeway on the east, and the split of Strawbridge Avenue and New Haven Avenue on the west. It also bans panhandling at bus stops; buses and on other public transit; any parking lot or garage operated by the government; and within 15 feet of ATMs, public bathrooms and lines of people waiting to get into a building.
A violation of either ordinance is a second-degree misdemeanor crime punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Enforcement would fall to the Melbourne Police Department, and it could be tricky.
"If we did have an ordinance in place that dealt with panhandling or aggressive panhandling, we would, of course, field the complaints and respond," police spokesman Sgt. Sheridan Shelley said. "But it's something we'd have to witness to take action. That in itself is one challenge for officers."
Shelley said it is common for panhandlers to be gone when police arrive. Between October 2013 and April of this year, police fielded 118 reports of panhandling in the downtown area. One third of those times the panhandler was gone when police arrived.
City officials said the ordinances will also help improve safety. In the past three years, the majority of crashes involving pedestrians in the city have occurred in the downtown area, though not all involved panhandlers.
"When you have individuals going into the street to collect money, that brings up the safety concern, too, of potential for collisions," Shelley said. "That's another thing that's also looked at when coming up with any ordinance on panhandling. The public safety side."
The City Council meets at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 900 E. Strawbridge Ave.
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