Letter: Vagrant Watch Group is not homeless police
St Johns, FL
Dear Historic City News editor:
When living in a city so defined by its history as St. Augustine, it is often easy to forget that what we do today continues to contribute to that narrative. The story is not fully written or done. My hope is that when it is, the community and government’s response will be worthy of the rich history of our city.
What began as a call to limit panhandling and protect business owners has led to a culture of intolerance. A so called “Vagrant Watch Group” has taken it upon themselves to police the homeless population. Too often this has led to harassment and humiliation of individuals who have done nothing wrong. Despite their sometimes-hateful online presence, this self-appointed group has been hailed as “heroes” in the local media. One of the organizers, Wade Ross, is running for city commission.
“Dining with Dignity” is a ministry of Home Again St. Johns. Church groups have been coming downtown to feed the hungry 365-days-a-year. Aside from hurricanes, they have missed less than ten meals in their seven and a half years serving the community.
I have volunteered with Dining with Dignity for four years. I am amazed at how ambitious, yet simple, their model is. People with nowhere else to go have somewhere every single night where they can count on being nourished, being treated with respect, and simply being noticed.
The future of this vital work is in question. After complaints from the Dog Rose Brewing Co., the city sent notice that serving meals is in violation of a zoning ordinance. Despite years of serving at that location, Home Again was told that they are not permitted to serve food in an unpaved lot. Several weeks later, the organization moved to a temporary site; however, they are cut off from the shed that holds the materials they need.
This is not a simple story of a zoning ordinance or of one organization. This is the story of St Augustine’s failure to its homeless population; in its media coverage, in its laws, and in everyday human interactions.
I concede that not every homeless person is an angel, but the press’ continued characterization of them as “vagrants” and “burdens” is a roadblock to a compassionate solution. I also recognize that the current services available to the homeless are not perfect, but it is unfair to continue criticizing them without offering any solutions.
I understand that the city must serve its businesses, but great lengths have been taken to protect them from the negative effects of homelessness, while little progress has been made to take care of the needy.
If you have compassion for the homeless, then you recognize the need for a permanent solution to be made quickly. If you do not, then consider that the man or woman lining up for a free meal could, one day, be you.
Ask yourself, “What would I want from someone at my lowest point?” Start with compassion, understanding, recognition of their presence, and humanity. Maybe just start with a smile.