Self-reliant citizens volunteer to improve vagrant problems

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What do you do when you live in a town whose tourism-driven economy is threatened because visitors no longer feel safe doing the very things they traveled there to enjoy — dining from scores of local restaurants, cafes and bistros, walking through charming city streets exploring the romantic sights and sounds, or discovering centuries-old artifacts of our nation’s history?

That’s the dilemma facing residents and business owners in St Augustine every day, and its recently grown evident that the problems are greater than the capacity of the local government to manage.

“If something isn’t done, it will tarnish the image of the town for a long time,” said Beata Kosakowska, who is the owner of Cafe del Hidalgo on St. George Street in a recently published interview. “I’m so disgusted, I’m selling the business.”

The City Attorney, Isabelle Lopez, has been of no value to the merchants and downtown residents who looked to her for a judicial solution that police could use to remove and arrest beggars selling everything from crosses made of palm fronds to other worthless trinkets, or simply begging for money from tourists who may feel sorry for them and the stray pets they tend to tie up next to them to gain the sympathy of people trying to pass. Since 2016, Lopez’ legal advice for the city has been to take a “hands-off” approach until a new “panhandling ordinance” can be implemented.

City Hall admits that there is a crisis. It is apparent that Lopez is over her head; so much so, that on December 11, 2017, the city commission authorized City Manager John Regan to hire Constitutional Law Attorney Michael Kahn of Melbourne Florida, to rewrite their panhandling ordinance.

Kahn told commissioners that a key part of crafting the new ordinance will be building the record of panhandling issues to demonstrate “competent, substantial evidence” supporting the tougher panhandling ordinance he’s writing for the city. If a draft ordinance can be completed by the end of January, with first reading in February, it could be enacted in March, Kahn estimates.

“People can document and report any kind of information related to the panhandling issues to help the city understand what’s happening — whether positive, negative, or neither,” Kahn told commissioners.

With frustration growing by the moment, those who are closest to the problem doubt the City has sufficient resources to accomplish the task at hand. Armed with the information provided by the attorney and later updated in a public meeting with the City Manager and Chief of Police, Barry Fox, a group of individual citizens (not controlled by the city) came together and volunteered to photo-document public areas that are afflicted with vagrant and aggressive panhandlers.

  • They communicate with each other through a local Facebook group, St Augustine Vagrant Watch Group. Members upload photographs and witness statements including names and relationships between those who they observe violating the city’s current panhandling ordinance that Lopez will not enforce. The group is closed, meaning anyone can find the group and see who’s in it; but, only the 1,167 members can see the photographs and posts.
  • When volunteer members observe “aggressive” panhandling, public exposure or urination, trespassing, assault, open alcoholic beverages, or violations of other state laws, they call police who respond to their location to investigate and make arrests if necessary.
  • As should be expected, since the members of the group are reporting activities as they occur, more arrests are being made and more of a police presence is being felt on St George Street, near the Historic Downtown Parking Facility, and around the Plaza de la Constitution. That has led to some complaints by residents who feel the effort is too harsh and some panhandlers themselves feeling the pressure of the group’s presence.
  • On the other hand, merchants and members of the group tell Historic City News that they are noticing a positive reduction in the number of vagrant panhandlers curled up in doorways, sprawled across the street, and showing up at the rear of their businesses when young female employees are arriving and leaving work.

One merchant and a nearby resident told local reporters that if the city had continued to refuse to enforce any of the laws against vagrant panhandlers, the situation had already reached the point where confrontations between those involved were bound to get physical. The cooperation between the Vagrant Watch Group and police has lowered temperatures as well as started to make a positive impact on what had become a fiasco.

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