HERNANDO COUNTY - While other counties in the Tampa Bay area tweak ordinances to control panhandling, Hernando County does not seem to have a problem.
It is rare for drivers to see people soliciting on local roads or people holding signs asking for money or work.
A solicitation ban has worked well since it was enacted in 1998, authorities say, and the reason behind it was public safety for motorists and panhandlers alike.
County Commissioner Jim Adkins said he sometimes sees panhandlers along roads but they don't seem to be there long. He has received no telephone calls from people complaining of solicitors.
"I guess we're fortunate here," he said.
Hernando's 16-year-old solicitation ordinance was amended in 2001 and has undergone no changes since.
Denise Moloney, public information officer for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, said deputies have taken an aggressive stance on panhandlers - and word gets out that such activity will not be tolerated.
Moloney said it's difficult to put the clamps on unwanted activity when violators have been allowed to get away with it for a long time. That might account for panhandling problems in other counties, she said.
"We don't want anyone getting hurt or anyone getting hit by a car," Moloney said. "It's a public safety and traffic safety issue."
In addition to the county ordinance, Moloney said two state laws help deputies enforce anti-panhandling measures.
If left unchecked, motorists could see panhandlers on almost every major corner in Hernando County, she said.
"We constantly strive to do our best to stay vigilant and on top of this issue because it could quickly get out of hand," said Col. Mike Mauer with the sheriff's office.
Hernando's ordinance proclaims it is unlawful for any person "to solicit for employment, business, contributions or sales of any kind or collect monies for the same, from the occupant of any vehicle traveling upon any street or highway."
Solicitation on county roads is prohibited to prevent dangers to people or property, to prevent delays and to avoid traffic tie-ups.
Law enforcement officers are empowered to enforce the ordinance and violators can be fined up to $500, sent to jail for up to 60 days or both.
Other municipalities with panhandling bans include Pasco, Hillsborough and Marion counties; St. Petersburg; and Tampa.
Brian Moore, chairman of the Nature Coast Coalition for Peace and Justice, said the absence of panhandlers reflects badly on Hernando because the county is stifling people's right to free speech.
"It's very scarce in Hernando County and that bothers me," Moore said. "I would rather see much more freedom and openness to tolerate the social condition of our society."
Moore acknowledges motorists don't know for sure if a person asking for money wants it for food, family needs or to satisfy an addiction to alcohol or cigarettes. Panhandlers must be taken at face value, he said.
Moore doesn't entirely buy the argument that deputies crack down on panhandlers in the name of public safety. He believes it is more of an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality on the part of residents.
"It's very selfish and I expect it (in Hernando County)," Moore said. "It's a conservative community that has a 'not in my backyard' type of attitude."
Moore said there are only so many social services, and for many homeless or unemployed people, soliciting for money is the sole way to support themselves or a family.
"There are a lot of people suffering," Moore said. "We are a community and we have a communal obligation."
Bruce Gimbel, executive director of Jericho Road Ministries, runs a homeless shelter for men and women. His goal is to get homeless people into his shelter, clean them up, provide life skills and get them off alcohol or drugs.
About 90 percent of the people who come through his doors have addiction problems, he said.
Gimbel said his experience dealing with the homeless is the reason why he will not give money to panhandlers. It fuels their addiction because they likely will use it to buy alcohol or drugs, he said.
Instead, Gimbel said, he engages them in conversation and invites them to Jericho Road Ministries or another social service agency.
But he acknowledges such attempts to cure the root problem of panhandling are not always successful.
For example, only two out of 10 transients who come through his doors opt to stay because most know they would have to stop using alcohol or drugs and they aren't willing to do so.
"I'm not saying my practice (of not giving to panhandlers) is the right practice," Gimbel said. "I think everyone is motivated to offer help or money in a different manner."
Homeless people have to be ready to change and many are not, he said.
Gimbel said he occasionally sees panhandlers in Hernando and, when he does, he offers to drive them to a nearby restaurant for a meal rather than give them money.
He applauds the sheriff's office for doing its job.
"Law enforcement is there to administer the laws for the community," he said. "So if they're enforcing the laws that are on the books, they should be commended."