Police Chief and City Manager will answer public questions

Historic City News readers are invited to attend a public Question and Answer session regarding panhandling and homelessness this Wednesday and Thursday, December 6th and 7th, at St Augustine City Hall, located at 75 King Street. Chief of Police Barry Fox and City Manager John Regan will conduct these two public meetings and will be available to answer questions from the audience, time permitting.

The two-hour sessions will start at 6:00 p.m. each evening in The Alcazar Room across from the courtyard at City Hall.

Although time was not available to broadcast these special meetings, it is anticipated that the sessions will follow the same format each evening; so, those attending may wish to choose one night or the other.

At the City Commission’s November 13, 2017 meeting, City Manager John Regan made a comprehensive presentation that began to frame the issues of both panhandling and homelessness — activities and conditions that are sometimes mistakenly viewed as synonymous.

In recent months, the City of St. Augustine has experienced an increase in panhandling activities, a condition that has raised questions from residents and business owners about workable solutions and generated negative comments from visitors.

Recognizing that this condition has multiple root causes and viable options, the city has taken the lead on addressing the issue.

To assist in understanding the problems, below are a dozen frequently asked questions about panhandling, homelessness, and what can and cannot be done to address the issue.

What is the difference between panhandlers and the homeless?

While some panhandlers are homeless and some homeless engage in panhandling, the two terms are not interchangeable.  Homelessness is the condition of those who do not have a permanent dwelling, such as a house or apartment.
Panhandling is begging for money with a dependence on the sympathy of others.

Is panhandling illegal in St. Augustine?

Recent court rulings have determined that panhandling is considered speech and thus is a protected First Amendment right, but aggressive panhandling is not protected speech. Aggressive panhandling is the coercing or intimidating of another individual for monetary gain by placing the individual in fear. For instance, asking for money is legal, but if a panhandler asks repeatedly, follows or touches a person, or becomes abusive to the point of placing the person in fear, that is illegal and may be reported to the police by calling the non-emergency number at 904.825.1070 or, in case of an emergency, call 911.

How does the increase of panhandling affect the workload of the St. Augustine Police Department?

In the eight month period from March to November of 2017, the St. Augustine Police Department responded to complaints regarding homeless persons, transients and panhandlers 522 times, an increase of more than 63% over the same period in 2016.

Who are the homeless, why are they homeless, how did they arrive in St. Augustine?

The St. Augustine Police Department spent time surveying those in which they came in contact. Here is what they learned:

What caused their homeless condition?
No family: 31%
Health: 27%
No jobs: 13%
Other: 29%

Where are they from?
St. Johns County: 11%
Surrounding counties: 32%
Elsewhere in Florida: 18%
Out of State: 39%

How did they arrive in St. Augustine?
Drove or hitchhiked: 26%
Bus: 37%
Walked or biked: 18%
Other: 19%

Why was St. Augustine their destination?
Already here: 42%
Came for employment: 18%
Other: 40%

What are their needs?
Housing: 36%
Job placement: 18%
Needs are being met: 27%
Other: 19%

Is it possible for there to be new ordinances that address more than just aggressive panhandling?

The city has started working with Michael Kahn, a well known attorney experienced in First Amendment issues, to craft an ordinance that will address panhandling in such a way as to withstand legal challenges. Mr. Kahn made a presentation on the topic to the city commission at its November 13 meeting. The video of that presentation and the commission’s discussion is available at www.CityStAugTV.com by clicking on the November 13 meeting under the City Commission tab and selecting agenda items 13B.

Are there efforts to encourage people, especially visitors, not to give money to panhandlers?
After a presentation by City Manager John Regan at the November 28, 2017 meeting of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau Board, that body voted unanimously to work with the city to develop an educational campaign asking visitors to direct their donations to responsible organizations which provide services needed by the homeless and not to panhandlers. It is hoped other elements of the tourism industry, including the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council and the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce will also participate in this effort.

Has the city reached out to agencies involved in addressing the needs of the homeless as a way of dealing with the panhandling problem?
Through a number of meetings with a wide range of service providers, City Manager John Regan is leading an effort to access what assistance is currently available and identify where there are overlapping efforts or gaps in services from a wide variety of organizations, including:

  • Historic St. Augustine Area Council
  • Home Again St. Johns County
  • St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau
  • St. Francis House
  • St. Johns County Administration
  • St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce
  • St. Johns County Continuum of Care
  • St. Johns County Tourist Development Council
  • United Way of St. Johns County

By gathering this information, the city is in a better position to encourage a coordination of efforts among all agencies to collectively achieve greater results

What is the city doing now to address these challenges?
The St. Augustine Police Department is continuing its longstanding family reunification program to assist homeless persons to return to their families. Also, the city provides funds to help support the work of Home Again St. Johns and St. Francis House, and rents the location where Dining with Dignity provides free dining services for those in need.

Is it possible for the city to prevent sleeping in public spaces overnight?
Enforcement of no camping ordinances is dependent on the availability of an alternative place to sleep. For instance, upon discovering a person sleeping in a public place like the Plaza de la Constitution, the police can offer three options: move along, go to jail, or accept transportation to a shelter with sleeping space. But, if sleeping space is not available, the police cannot offer any alternatives. For this reason, the city and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office funds the cost of a total of eight beds at St. Francis House. But, once those beds are filled, the police have no alternative than to allow the person to continue sleeping in the public space.

Has the city investigated how other municipalities have addressed these problems?
City staff has looked at programs in many cities and are including some of the lessons learned in how St. Augustine plans its approach. Some of those cities in Florida are Orlando, Tampa and Sarasota, and in other states are New Haven, CT, Denver, CO, Lexington, KY, Albuquerque, NM, and Asheville, NC.

What are some of the city’s immediate actions for addressing the problem of panhandling and the challenge of homelessness?
In the short term, the city:

has surveyed the homeless community to learn more about its needs and shared information on available services;
has identified the need for a campaign to eliminate panhandling contributions, and is building a coalition of organizations to produce and distribute materials;
has initiated training for Visitor Information Center (VIC) staff on the issue;
is working to expedite St. Francis House returning to full capacity and its future expansion;
continues to fund increased emergency beds at St. Francis House;
is enhancing enforcement efforts on current laws and developing new ones to address the problem including a rewrite of ordinances related to panhandling;
provides supportive funding to Home Again St. Johns and St. Francis House, and rents a location for Dining with Dignity to provide free dining services for those in need

What can individuals now do to start making a difference?
The public can act immediately in two ways:

support organizations that strive everyday to meet the needs of men, women, children and families that are homeless; and
do not support panhandling activities by giving money to those who are begging on the city’s streets and in its parks.

City Manager’s presentation to City Commission (11/13/2017)
Video segment of City Manager’s presentation and the commission’s subsequent discussion (11/13/2017)
Attorney Michael Kahn’s presentation and the commission’s subsequent discussion (11/13/2017)

For more information on the city’s efforts to meet the challenges of homelessness and the problem of panhandling, contact the City Manager’s Office via email at CoSA@CityStAug.com or by phone at 904.825.1006.

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