City gets new panhandling and begging ordinance

On a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Leanna Freeman absent, the commission of the City of St Augustine approved a new ordinance on second reading after hours of sworn witness testimony and public comments, that will prohibit general panhandling and begging for money within specific 20-foot or 100-foot zones within the city.

When challenged by commissioner Todd Neville, constitutional law attorney Michael Kahn, who drafted the new ordinance, defended the use of zones that Neville considered not clearly understandable by “non-constitutional lawyers”. Kahn explained that unlike other ordinances, some of which have been challenged and appealed, this ordinance can be presented by the City to the public in interactive map form; enabling anyone the ability to look at any specific location anywhere within the city limits and know whether solicitation is allowed or not.

One observation brought forward in that exchange was the fact that the ordinance can not control panhandling, begging, or solicitation on private property. “If the owner of a house wanted to have a party and allow anybody to come and solicit money, you couldn’t stop them,” Kahn said.

The new ordinance is considered vindication for public health and safety concerns described in graphic detail by a list of sworn witnesses that included testimony from Dr. Roy H. Hinman. Bacterial and viral infections associated with public urination and defecation can be quickly spread, provide significant risk of infection and disease leading to hospitalization or death. A dozen witnesses offered firsthand testimony of encounters with vagrants involving siting, walking, or standing in their own urine-soaked clothes, vomit or feces. The owner of the Panama Hat Company store on St George Street related an occasion when he had to close his business to clean up after some vagrant smeared feces across the floor as it leaked from his pants-leg. Partners in Antoinette’s Bath House each told of an occasion where someone apparently backed up to their store and defecated; leaving feces running down the wall.

Cindy Stavely, executive director of the Pirate Museum and Colonial Quarter, expressed her concerns — not only for the safety of her guests and employees, but also for children in school groups who visit the attraction on field trips. Another speaker had photographs of one beggar in a wheelchair who had gone into the public restroom on St George Street to change his catheter. Instead on going into an available handicap accessible stall, he exposed his genitals publicly while he inserted the tube into his penis while children were standing nearby.

Another point that was mentioned in discussion, not addressed by the new ordinance, is overnight camping. The City has a contracted number of cots and beds at St Francis House, the homeless shelter on Washington Street. Police Chief Barry Fox explained that his officers can remove transients who sleep overnight in the Plaza, for example, but only until all the city-provided beds are filled. Beyond that, nothing can be done unless the transient is breaking some other law. Fox reported that the available beds are shared with the costs of providing the beds split between the city police department and the sheriff’s office. He stated further that there is hardly a night that they are not operating at capacity.

Aggressive panhandling, begging, and vagrancy has escalated to crisis conditions in St Augustine. Businesses are losing customers and tourists are threatening never to vacation in St Augustine again as a direct result of their encounters with panhandlers. On advice of the city attorney, Isabelle Lopez, about a year ago the city took a “non-enforcement” position on the prior panhandling ordinance. Tampa, whose ordinance was the model for our local ordinance, lost an appeal of their ordinance in court on constitutional grounds.

A motion to approve the new ordinance, made by commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline, seconded by Todd Neville and unanimously approved by roll call vote, came at about 11:10 p.m. and becomes effective in 10-days.