The surge in fall enrollment at USF St. Petersburg will bring an influx of new and returning students to campus. However, high volumes of people can also be a magnet for area panhandlers, said Chief Rene Chenevert, head of University Police Services.
In June 2010, the St. Petersburg City Council enacted a law prohibiting aggressive panhandling in downtown St. Petersburg. The law not only applies to the downtown area but encompasses USF St. Petersburg’s campus, too.
“Panhandling is a major concern in the downtown area of St. Petersburg and it’s a concern to USFSP police anytime we have members of the USFSP community approached by strangers,” said University Police Lt. Reginald Oliver.
Chenevert believes the close proximity of the Salvation Army shelter, located at 1400 4th St. S, may be a potential hotspot for filtering foot traffic onto campus. “We want to make campus as safe as possible for the people who legitimately belong here,” Chenevert said. “Our campus has no tolerance for criminal or suspicious activity.”
Oliver said requests of someone asking students for money are reported approximately once a month. University Police Services has also issued trespass warnings to suspected panhandlers. The most recent reported incidents of panhandling on campus took place in April 2011. “We had two situations in which subjects came on campus asking students for money,” Oliver said.
When compared with other campus crimes, Oliver said panhandling is not one of the more frequent crimes. Theft of property, such as bicycles, laptops and cell phones, ranks highest among campus crimes. However, Oliver said panhandling is a call that ranks as a high alert call because it deals with a suspicious person on campus.
“We take the issue of panhandling very seriously on campus,” said Ashok Dhingra, regional vice chancellor for administrative and financial services. Dhingra, who oversees University Police Services as part of his division, said there are no reasons to give money to panhandlers and the best approach is to refrain from giving any assistance.
While most college students may feel sympathetic about having a limited supply of financial resources, University Police caution students to be aware of some of the ploys used to solicit money for alcohol or drugs.
Not all panhandlers are homeless, and strategies asking for money can be elaborate. A panhandler may try to gain sympathy with a story about a pregnant wife or sick family, or that his or her car ran out of gas and they are trying to make it home and are stranded.
University Police advise the USF St. Petersburg community not to be fooled by false stories. Food, shelter, and assistance are available to those in need, police representatives said. If a person really wants to help out, University Police suggest donating to a homeless shelter. Taking out your wallet or purse could potentially make you the victim of a crime.
Oliver suggests safety tips for students that find themselves confronted by a person asking for money on campus. Politely say “no,” get a description of the individual, and contact University Police at 727-873-4140 or use an emergency phone on campus, he said. Reporting it in a timely manner would allow police to make contact with the panhandler and address the situation.
“Without the notification, we don’t know that someone is being approached,” Oliver said. “We can only rely on reported cases when attempting to identify a trend or pattern of concern.”