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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017 6 months ago

Ocoee to consider new panhandling restrictions

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Ocoee leaders are looking to curb panhandling in certain areas due to public-safety issues and currently are drafting an ordinance that will propose some new rules. 
by: Gabby Baquero Staff Writer

OCOEE – Calling it a public safety issue, Ocoee city leaders and the Ocoee Police Department are looking to adopt an ordinance that sets limits on panhandling.

Citing their constituents’ repeated concerns over an increase in panhandling within the city, commissioners agreed to consider a panhandling ordinance during the Jan. 26 meeting.

“We’ve had a lot of complaints about it, so we’re trying to see what we can do and can’t do,” said Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson, who preferred to withhold further comment until he's seen the ordinance.

The potential new law, which is being modeled after Winter Garden’s own panhandling ordinance, is being drafted by a city attorney presently and will be ready for scrutiny in the coming weeks.

Ocoee Police Deputy Chief Steve McCosker, who has read the first draft, stressed the ordinance will not create a ban on panhandling but rather will provide police much-needed guidelines to handle panhandlers. 

“The ordinance that has been proposed will actually just require the person to go ahead and register as a panhandler, and at that time, they’ll get the ordinance so they can see what the rules are,” McCosker said. “And then, also, if they want to panhandle on private property, it’ll require them to speak to the property owner or get written permission for that.”

McCosker emphasized the growing need of a law on panhandling in light of the existing void on the issue and the numerous development projects the city is pursuing.

“With the growth that we’ve seen and knowing the type of growth the city is looking to do, I think we all could probably agree that’s it’s going to be a more conducive type of atmosphere for panhandling if we set rules of what’s acceptable and what’s not,” he said.

As it stands, Ocoee doesn’t have any laws on panhandling. However, there still exists traffic laws that address the practice, albeit indirectly, he added.

“There isn’t a panhandling law, per se, but they do have other restrictions,” McCosker said. “You can’t go on the median and just hold your sign up and say you want a donation for a church, or because you need to get food, because there are actual traffic laws against that. And as far as private property, that really is up to the property owner to decide at this time, at least without an ordinance.”

“I cringe when I see people collecting money in the middle of the highway or the median where they’re walking up and down stopping cars and weaving in traffic to collect money. I find that very unsafe." – Ocoee District 2 Commissioner  Rosemary Wilsen 

He suggested this proposed ordinance would enhance public safety, a sentiment with which District 2 Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen agrees. Wilsen, who also works for the West Orange Christian Service Center in Ocoee, said she does not support panhandling because she views the practice as a “quick fix” that people struggling with poverty need not resort to, given the array of social service agencies eager to help.

“I cringe when I see people collecting money in the middle of the highway or the median where they’re walking up and down stopping cars and weaving in traffic to collect money,” Wilsen said. “I find that very unsafe.”

However, the ordinance won’t affect only poor people, McCosker said. Church groups, sports teams and other groups occasionally solicit donations at busy intersections, as well.

“The ordinance will just go ahead and establish some safety rules to keep both the general public and the panhandlers safe, especially in this day and age we live in where people, unfortunately, text and drive and things of that nature,” McCosker said. “And again, it’s not targeted at homeless people or people who are down on their luck. It’s targeted to any organization that wants to just solicit a donation.”

Editor’s note: This is the first story in an ongoing series on panhandling and homelessness in West Orange County.

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Contact Gabby Baquero at gbaquero@orangeobserver.com.

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