The city of St. Augustine is no longer enforcing rules that restrict where people can panhandle downtown.
City Code prohibits panhandling in much of the historic area, including on St. George Street, in the Plaza de la Constitucion and near the Castillo de San Marcos.
But the city decided in 2016 to no longer enforce those restrictions after a court case raised concerns about the constitutionality of the rules, City Attorney Isabelle Lopez said.
The U.S. District Court case in Tampa pitted Homeless Helping Homeless Inc., which raised funds by soliciting in downtown Tampa and other areas, against city of Tampa restrictions that prohibited soliciting money in certain areas, according to the court order.
The order in 2016, which applied U.S. Supreme Court opinion in a sign regulations case called Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, stopped Tampa from banning panhandling in downtown Tampa and other areas, according to the order.
“If someone is just sitting there and not harassing you, not blocking your path, not otherwise behaving in a way where it would trigger aggressive panhandling, then they [have] a constitutional right to that speech,” Lopez said.
For the city of St. Augustine, the case meant that parts of City Code that prohibit panhandling in certain areas are questionable, Lopez said.
“That’s why we have voluntarily chosen not to enforce prohibitions on panhandling that are simply based on zone geography,” Lopez said.
The city also isn’t enforcing time-of-day restrictions on panhandling, according to Lopez.
The city still enforces its rules against aggressive panhandling, which has a long definition but prohibits panhandling in a way that would harass or intimidate, involve touching people or vehicles without consent, blocking vehicles or people, or continuing to ask for money after being told no.
The city could draft new City Code on the matter. One consideration is that the city is still in mediation in a First Amendment-related case, Lopez said. In that case, four artists filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s rules on creating and selling art in public places.
Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, and a lawsuit, also led the city of St. Augustine Beach to change its sign regulations. But St. Augustine Beach is still enforcing its panhandling ordinance, according to St. Augustine Beach Police Department Cmdr. Thomas Ashlock.
Beach City Code prohibits panhandling of people in motor vehicles on public roads, either from the road or near the edge of the road. Beach City Code says the law does not prohibit asking for donations from pedestrians on sidewalks.
For Michael Meagher, who said he makes $733 a month from Supplemental Security Income, panhandling has helped him survive.
He sat on St. George Street near Cathedral Place on Wednesday afternoon with a sign in front of his legs that read, “vision impaired and homeless.”
“I avoid this area because of the hardcore drunks that hang out down here, but I was starving out, I mean I hadn’t eaten in almost a week, and this got me through,” he said.
He recently learned of the city’s lack of enforcement of panhandling regulations from a friend, who knew he needed food and suggested he go downtown to make some money.
“He said, ‘As long as you don’t ask for anything, and as long as you don’t harass the tourists, and your sign simply says what your problem is and that you’re homeless, there’s no problem,’” he said.
He said he agrees with the city still prohibiting aggressive panhandling, adding that in his opinion church people who stand in the middle of the road are aggressively panhandling but get away with it.
He said law enforcement treat homeless people equally, throwing good and bad people out of the woods. Also, some people have tried to make homeless people look bad and that they should be thrown out of town, he said.
He knows of five people who, like him, are disabled and take medication and don’t drink, he said. They are homeless in the St. Augustine area.
“I think if they would take care of the alcoholics, treat alcoholism like it’s a disease because it is, and quit screwing around with not doing anything about it, life on the street would very quickly disappear because without the alcoholics causing all the turmoil, people … out here would actually begin to care again, and that’s the thing that really hurts,” he said.
The lack of enforcement in St. Augustine hasn’t appeared to spike complaints about panhandling, said Assistant St. Augustine Police Chief Anthony Cuthbert.
“We still get some complaints about it,” Cuthbert said. “It doesn’t seem the complaints have risen any more than we used to get.”
Violating the city’s panhandling regulations can be punished with a fine of up to $500 or up to 60 days in jail, or some combination of both, according to City Code.
Even though police aren’t enforcing restrictions on where people can panhandle, Cuthbert said police respond to all calls for service and will try to dissuade people from panhandling and try to direct them to services if necessary. They will also enforce rules regarding aggressive panhandling.
“We’ll always respond down there to any issues or complaints they have. … We don’t want people to think we’ve just abandoned it,” Cuthbert said.