Upset by downtown merchants’ recent efforts to discourage panhandling, Michael Barfield decided to fight back using the same platform.
Signs posted throughout the Main Street area warn passersby against panhandling. The A-frame signs, attached to light poles, cite a claim by homelessness consultant Robert Marbut that 93% of the money given to panhandlers goes to drugs or alcohol.
The signs, posted by the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, are designed to raise public awareness of the potential negative effects of giving money to homeless people on the street. Ron Soto, president of the merchants group, also started a program called “Downtown Cares,” which encourages donations to the Salvation Army and other service providers in lieu of giving cash directly to people on the street.
The messaging did not sit well with Barfield, a paralegal and vice president of the ACLU of Florida. He came up with a plan to present a different message: On Thursday, several signs disparaging toward downtown merchants were posted throughout the heart of the city.
“Downtown doesn’t care,” one sign reads. “Take your business to the new mall.”
“Don’t spend your $$$ downtown,” another says, emulating the format of the merchants' signs. “99% of everything is cheaper elsewhere (according to recent survey).”
Barfield said he wanted another perspective to be heard, and that the signs were a way to communicate that not everybody was behind the merchants’ message.
“I thought that people should hear other messages and really think about what’s going on,” Barfield said. “In particular, Mr. Soto’s signs only take into consideration one of Dr. Marbut’s recommendations.”
Barfield said he thought the merchants campaign was motivated by self-interest — that they didn’t want panhandlers distracting from their businesses. Without a more comprehensive plan to address homelessness, such as a come-as-you-are homeless shelter, Barfield thought the fundraising campaign would fail to truly address the underlying issues connected to street homelessness.
“I think that’s just putting a band-aid on a problem and making us feel good at best,” Barfield said.
Soto said he was outraged by the signs, which he has already had taken down. He said he’s gotten an outpouring of calls from merchants and residents concerned about the signs and supportive of the merchants association’s efforts.
"With our Downtown Cares program, we're trying to raise money to help," Soto said. "Here he is, trying to sabotage downtown."
He disagreed with Barfield’s assessment of the merchants’ motives, and said his group supported a come-as-you-are shelter located in the center of Sarasota County. He criticized the signs as unproductive distractions and an attack on downtown businesses.
“He just took it upon himself to do whatever he wanted to do for whatever selfish reason it was,” Soto said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected].