A man in a wheelchair talks with a driver at the corner of New Haven and US 1 in downtown Melbourne.
Melbourne, Florida (FL Today) -- Frustrated by transients harassing their customers and employees, downtown Melbourne businesses started their own campaign to attack what they see as a growing problem of panhandling.
A petition is circulating among businesses and customers in both downtown Melbourne and Eau Gallie, asking city officials to acknowledge panhandling is a problem and that a solution is needed. Meanwhile, another group of downtown patrons started a Facebook page, "Cleanup DowntownMelbourne."
"Everyone has been working very hard to redevelop the downtown area," said Megan Gonzalez, owner of The Nomad Café, who started the petition. "The only thing left is to handle the transient issue."
The petition asks that Melbourne police strengthen their efforts to enforce laws already in place dealing with trespassing, public drunkenness and verbal assault. Gonzalez said the city doesn't necessarily need new rules on panhandling.
"Just more of a police presence would push (panhandlers) out of their comfort zone," she said.
Gonzalez is writing a letter that will go to business owners, explaining what they are allowed to do about panhandlers and reminding them to report all instances to police.
Gonzalez has signatures from at least 20 of the business owners and is seeking support from other merchants. Gonzalez said she has not actively sought signatures from downtown patrons, but has had at least 50 of her customers sign the petition she has at her restaurant.
While only weeks old, the efforts are starting to make an impact.
The Melbourne Police Department stepped up its presence on weekend nights in response to increased complaints about panhandling and similar disturbances in the downtown district, Sgt. Sheridan Shelley said.
City Manager Jack Schluckebier also asked the department to put together a report on panhandling and what they can do to better address the problem.
And Melbourne councilman Mark LaRusso said he will push for an ordinance that would ban aggressive panhandling and creating areas where panhandling is not allowed at certain times, such as before sunset and after sunrise. He said he'd also like to see panhandling banned in the vicinity of ATMs and on private property unless the owner has given permission.
LaRusso said the city needs to act because businesses are getting hurt by increased panhandling.
"We've been dancing around this thing for so darn long. Their patience has worn thin. They want us to take a lead on this," he said.
Councilwoman Kathy Meehan, whose family owns a business and property downtown, agreed.
"We need to listen to the business community. They say they are having issues and we need to address them," she said.