Panhandling: From crisis to order

The City of St Augustine has managed to restore order where, only a few months ago, they told local Historic City News reporters that – between aggressive panhandlers and uncontrolled vagrancy – the situation had evolved into a “crisis”.

Unbeknown to downtown residents and merchants, on the instruction of current city attorney, Isabelle Lopez, St Augustine Police officers were instructed to stand down and stop enforcement of the city’s existing panhandling ordinance; on the books since drafted by the last city attorney, Ronald W. Brown.

Instead of getting a new city attorney, a solution advocated by a number of those most affected by the quickly deteriorating fiasco in the Plaza and along St George Street, the city commission decided to hire the outside law firm of Michael Kahn to re-write the panhandling ordinance.

Ostensibly Kahn is a constitutional law “expert”, but, as you may recall, he is also the author of the city’s ordinances banning creative artists. Those ordinances twice failed before the district court of appeals. The city was left to settle with artists whose constitutional rights were violated, pay their attorney’s fees, as well as those of outside counsel.

In an interview with reporters Friday, St Augustine Mayor, Nancy Shaver, said that the city expects to be hit with another First Amendment lawsuit over the new ordinance. She went on to explain that Lopez believes the city now has the type of restrictions, backed with the correct documents, to survive a court challenge.

Possibly the best thing that can be reported today, since the city commission’s unanimous passage in March of the new ordinance regulating begging, panhandling, and solicitation, is that police have resumed enforcement of panhandling violations.

Not the least factor in achieving today’s condition, by any means, was the formation of a citizen-based neighborhood watch group who volunteered to observe and report sightings of aggressive panhandling, trespassing, shoplifting, and disorderly intoxication. That forced city manager John Regan, Lopez, and Chief of Police Barry Fox to keep moving forward on this growing nuisance. Group members communicated their activities with each other and authorities through a closed Facebook group accessible to police and city management. Through calls to the police department’s non-emergency and 911 telephone numbers, observers, armed with smartphones and cameras, built an indisputable mountain of evidence that told the true story of illegal, unhealthy, and dangerous activity occurring downtown.

The new ordinance prohibits panhandling within 20-feet of entryways to commercial establishments, parking meters, and ATM locations. Schools and daycare facilities enjoy additional buffers of 100-feet.

Retailers in downtown St. Augustine say the streets are cleaner and they have more customers.

“I’ve noticed a steep increase in arrests and an influx of inmates reported at the St Johns County jail,” Mayor Shaver said. “This is what happens when you enforce ordinances to the letter. I’m guessing that will dip down again, because this is working very well.”

Janet Brown, a homeless woman, said she witnessed dozens of arrests and feels like the homeless are being pushed out.  “Almost all the homeless people are gone, or they’re in other parts of the city,” Brown said.

A map of areas where panhandling is still allowed in the city is available on the city’s website

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