Is this the voice of a “Christian organization”…”when we don’t get our way, we will just sue you”?

SPRINGFIELD — The Panama City Rescue Mission has filed an appeal of the city of Springfield’s decision to deny a development order for the expansion of its Bethel Village program.

In the appeal filed last week, the Rescue Mission claims the city failed to provide procedural due process and “failed to base its decision on competent substantial evidence” when it denied the development order in March.

The Rescue Mission is asking the court to direct the city to issue the development order.

Springfield City Attorney Kevin Obos said the city is waiting for an order from Circuit Court Judge Michael Overstreet to determine how long the city has to respond, but he said the city had grounds to deny the development order.

“We feel that they did have competent, substantial evidence before them that supported their decision at this hearing,” he said.

The Rescue Mission has spent years attempting to obtain a development order for the expansion of Bethel Village.

The development order was for one large residential structure that could accommodate 28 people and four cottages that could house eight to 10 people. The expansion would allow additional services to be provided at the site. The downtown Panama City location would be changed to an all-male facility, and females and their children up to age 12 would receive services in Springfield.

The organization applied for a development order in 2010, but it was denied several months later after a public hearing. That decision was appealed and in February 2011 Overstreet remanded the matter back to the City Commission for another hearing or for issuance of a development order.

In his decision, Overstreet wrote the commission “failed to provide any factual basis for their decision.”

After the public hearing, Springfield city commissioners said they were confident this time their decision was valid because it was based on fact, including the testimony of Police Chief Phillip Thorne.

Thorne said he believes there will be an increased strain on police officers and firefighters if the facility expands, and a larger number of residents coupled with a change in why they are at the facility likely would lead to an increase in calls for service from the police and fire departments. The city’s fire department responds to all emergency medical calls.

In its appeal, the Rescue Mission argued the decision was based on “speculative, general statements that this court has already determined was an improper basis” for denial.

The Rescue Mission also argued it was entitled to be informed of all the facts used for the city to reach its decision but was not.

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Fewer homeless in downtown St. Petersburg two years after panhandling ban

ST. PETERSBURG — There once was a time when Tammy Simms heard tons of complaints from downtown businesses about panhandlers.

She can’t remember the last time that happened.

“It’s probably longer than I could put a date to,” said Simms, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Business Association. “Maybe last year?”

It has been two years since the city tightened its rules on panhandling and instituted a general ban on “street solicitation.”

Since then, the downtown homeless population has shrunk dramatically. No longer are people gathering in front of City Hall to sleep, and complaints about panhandlers pestering tourists and patrons also have decreased.

“There’s a marked improvement and it has taken a lot of pressure off our merchants,” Simms said. “But I think there are still a core of regular faces that continue.”

Data from the city bears that out.

From January through May 30, police logged just 20 arrests or citations for panhandling.

That’s significantly less than two years ago, when city leaders approved the panhandling ban. That year, 2010, there were 180 arrests or citations, according to the Police Department.

“Before they started the ban, it would be nothing to see 10, 15, maybe more panhandlers a day. They were just everywhere. It was definitely disconcerting,” said Linda Albrecht, owner of the Gift Box on Beach Drive. “When they stopped … and authorities really came down on it, it’s been a delight to be down here any day of the week.”

That doesn’t mean that all of the panhandlers are gone.

A week ago, officers watched as transient Michael Smigelski, 51, begged a man for cash in a parking lot at Second Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

Officers had warned Smigelski before about panhandling, and records show he was arrested for it earlier this year. He was arrested again.

“The defendant refuses to cooperate in the diversionary program at Pinellas Safe Harbor,” officers wrote in a report.

Officials say there has always been a group of homeless who have no plans to change, refuse to get help and continue to beg for money on city streets.

St. Petersburg Officer Rich Linkiewicz, the city’s only homeless outreach officer, knows most of them — including Smigelski — by name.

“I’ve been dealing with them for years,” he said. “Many are alcoholics. They’ve gone through most of the shelters.”

Rhonda Abbott, who coordinates homeless services for the city, often keeps brochures in her car with information on how to help the homeless.

She’s not shy about handing them out to people she sees giving money to panhandlers. “It’s all about education,” Abbott said.

The brochures urge people to, “Give a hand up, not a hand out,” and list organizations that work with homeless and need donations.

Officials also routinely steer homeless people to Pinellas Safe Harbor, the shelter run by the Sheriff’s Office whose main purpose is to keep those who would normally land in jail for minor offenses — like panhandling — out of jail.

Safe Harbor also accepts those who may walk up intoxicated or on drugs.

“You just have to keep trying, to get them help and get them cleaned up,” Linkiewicz said of dealing with the “chronically homeless.” “When they’re ready, we’re ready.”

This should act as positive indicators for the effects that the Panama City ordinance should have on our downtown. Our city officials should be congratulated for taking time to research information about options and tools that have allowed our community to address our local panhandling problem and put those tools into action.



Aggressive panhandler arrested downtown with new ordinance.

Panama City- A transient man was arrested in Panama City on Tuesday after trying to solicit money from drivers in the downtown area.

This is the first arrest related to the updated aggressive panhandling ordinance since it passed in May.

The man arrested is Robert Sweatt Junior. He’s no stranger to law enforcement.
Police officials say he’s been arrested twice before for soliciting money.
According to the arrest report, law enforcement officials saw Sweatt on the curb of 11th street holding a sign reading ‘homeless, hungry, and help.’
He was also trying to flag down drivers to ask for money.
According to officials, state law prohibits soliciting money from drivers because it can pose a safety threat.

Police officials say the combination of defined restrictions plus support from the community have made a drastic change in the number of homeless-related calls.

“It’s not the issue it was a year ago. We have seen a sharp decline in the complaints that we receive from business owners or people who come downtown to shop,” said Sergeant Christopher Edmundson of the Panama City Police Department.

Edmundson says the addition of a downtown Panama City substation has also helped in the number of calls.