Police begin cracking down on panhandlers in downtown Delray Beach

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DELRAY BEACH — Police are done giving warnings: Panhandlers who harass customers out eating or drinking on Delray Beach’s fashionable Atlantic Avenue will be arrested and subject to criminal penalties.

It’s part of the city’s effort to limit “aggressive panhandling,” which downtown business owners complained was getting out of hand. Whether it makes a significant difference is yet to be determined.

After a heated debate in February, Delray Beach passed an ordinance banning panhandling in certain parts of the city but elected to have a six-month grace period before enacting punishments. The ordinance bans panhandling in about 6% of the city, much of it in the downtown area. The law prohibits panhandling within 20 feet of a restaurant and at any intersection, among other places.

Violators can face second-degree misdemeanor charges, up to 60 days in jail and fines of up to $500.

Delray Beach began enforcing the law Aug. 21, which has led to one arrest so far, according to the police department. While officers can now make arrests, a Delray Beach police spokesman said they haven’t changed their tactics in targeting panhandling and the ordinance hasn’t resulted in their deploying more officers downtown.

Palm Beach County passed an anti-panhandling ordinance in 2015 that carried similar penalties but was targeted toward people asking for money on roads and intersections. West Palm Beach passed an ordinance in December banning panhandling in its downtown area.

Delray Beach City Commissioner Adam Frankel spearheaded the bill, saying, “There’s always been this issue downtown.” During a meeting in February, he shared a story of a friend who was riding in her golf cart on Atlantic Avenue when “a gentleman came up with a dead squirrel and threatened to throw it on them unless they gave them money.”

While the ordinance was driven by the downtown corridor, many restaurant owners and general managers were reluctant to discuss the issue and declined to comment. Laura Simon, executive director for the Downtown Development Authority, said business owners she’s spoken to are grateful for the stricter ordinance and believe it will be extremely helpful.

While noting that “measurement of the impact is slow to come,” she said owners “can see a bit of difference.” Frankel agreed they’re on the right track, saying he believes, “it’s a great first step and I’m confident that by season it’s going to be working perfectly.”

People gather outside of Johnnie Brown's on New Year's Eve in Delray Beach on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020.

People gather outside of Johnnie Brown’s on New Year’s Eve in Delray Beach on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Antonello Paganuzzi, director of operations at Avalon Steak & Seafood, said in a statement that while panhandlers haven’t affected patrons, they “applaud the city’s decision to put the panhandling law into permanent effect for Delray Beach and are happy to see the city and the board continuing to be proactive in their approach to keeping Atlantic Avenue and Delray Beach vibrant.”

Similarly, Annie Blake said her Death or Glory Bar has never had much of an issue with panhandling, but she understands why the ordinance was passed. She also expressed sympathy for people who fall into such a dire situation where they need to panhandle.

“No one wants to be sitting at dinner and have somebody come up and ask you for money. That’s never a pleasant experience,” Blake said.

“I understand the need to keep businesses and guests safe and that’s of paramount importance, but I just hope we’re also doing things to treat the reasons for why people had to handle in the first place.”

Homeless advocates voiced concerns in February that police may overstep their bounds and use the ordinance to push homeless people — even those who weren’t panhandling — out of the downtown area. However, Ezra Krieg, chairman of the Delray Beach Initiative to End Homelessness, said that hasn’t been the case so far and that homeless people were not being moved “merely because they exist.”

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“[Police] see it as a tool of balancing some of the issues, because people panhandling in town while people are dining is not something anybody wants to have happen,” Krieg said. “They see it as a tool, but they have not used it as a sword, and I think that’s a great thing.”

Krieg said his organization has a positive relationship with the police department and that they’ve been able to work together to educate people during the transition. Over the past six months, The Delray Beach Initiative to End Homelessness has held multiple meetings to inform the community of the new panhandling ordinance and the penalties that come with it.

Additionally, the people who actively panhandle in the downtown area have been asked to move and been warned they could be charged in the future, Krieg said.

He also added that much of the response to the ordinance has actually been positive from people he’s spoken to.

“Not every person who is homeless panhandles,” Krieg said. “And not everyone who is homeless thinks panhandling is a good thing. We had some folks within the focus group saying, ‘I’m glad. We don’t want those folks panhandling.’”

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