Business owners and others say panhandling is threatening St. Augustine’s reputation and affecting businesses.
“If something isn’t done, it will tarnish the image of the town for a long time,” said Beata Kosakowska, owner of Cafe del Hidalgo on St. George Street.
Kosakowska talked about a series of problems she’s observed, and experienced, as a business owner related to homeless people and panhandlers — and she’s not alone. Others say something must be done to curb the problem before it gets worse.
People use the public bathrooms near her cafe to wash their bodies, she said. Every day there’s a panhandler near her shop soliciting for money, which deters business.
“I’m so disgusted, I’m selling the business,” she said.
Kosakowska, who has helped homeless people, said police should patrol St. George Street more. She added that there should be an effort to curb drug use and provide more services outside of downtown.
Because of a 2016 U.S. District Court case in Tampa that found panhandling was protected by the First Amendment, the city of St. Augustine stopped enforcing rules in 2016 that restrict where people can panhandle. But aggressive panhandling, like asking for money multiple times and intimidating people, is still prohibited in St. Augustine.
An outside attorney is writing new panhandling rules. Whether they will be adopted will be up to city commissioners, who are expected to discuss the issue more on Monday. The rewrite is part of the city’s plan to address not just panhandling and vagrancy, but also a lack of affordable housing in St. Johns County and emergency shelter beds.
Despite the city announcing plans to address a spike in panhandling, people who live and work downtown have still been looking for answers. They’ve posted photos, videos and stories to the St. Augustine Vagrant Watch Facebook page of things such as trash left on sidewalks and people sleeping or urinating in public.
About two dozen people came to a meeting Wednesday night at City Hall where the city manager and police chief answered questions about the problem.
Both men encouraged people to keep documenting what they see and to keep calling the police when necessary. That will help the city build its record of public health and safety concerns related to panhandling, which could help their defense if they’re sued over panhandling restrictions, Regan said.
Richard Baker has been doing just that by sharing what he’s seeing in his neighborhood. This week he walked near his home off St. George Street and pointed out both public and private properties where people typically sleep or leave trash or human waste. Strangers have also ventured onto his property.
He said he wants to city to implement a panhandling ban in the historic part of town, and he said he doesn’t think the situation could get worse.
“I’ve got to resort to getting cameras,” Baker said.
Others have also seen the panhandling problem grow outside of their doors.
Tom Sheltra, owner of St. George Street’s Prohibition Kitchen and Pizzalley’s, said panhandling and vagrancy issues in the heavily trafficked tourist area have gotten worse, and his female employees no longer walk alone at night.
He said panhandling hasn’t hurt businesses yet, but the problem could be leading to that point. Several customers have been mentioning the issue or complaining every week at his restaurants, he said.
Sheltra said he wants to share those complaints to help the city build its record of panhandling issues and defend against any lawsuits related to panhandling restrictions.
“I want to use them to help the city protect itself against what is coming because the First Amendment right is being abused in our country, and it’s taken advantage of, whereas people who have no skin in the game — have no property, have no money, have no permitting, have nothing in the game — have more rights than the people that have paid their taxes, own their property and their business and actually run this country,” Sheltra said. “And it’s time that the people who are actually supporting this country have some respect, and it’s overdue on a city level and a national level.”