‘Sign flyers’ say they aren’t contributing to panhandling crisis in downtown area

Despite business owners and city officials saying panhandling and the homeless population in downtown St. Augustine has reached a crisis level, many of the city’s homeless say they are not aggressively panhandling.


The call themselves “sign flyers.” Many of them sit on benches, or the ground, along busy St. George Street, holding signs that ask for a little help.

“I don’t ask anybody for nothing,” said one man Tuesday afternoon who declined to give his name. “You get some people who do that, I don’t do do that.”

The man, holding a sign on a St. George Street bench just off Cathedral Place, said he came to downtown St. Augustine about a month ago from Clay County.”

“In Orange Park, it’s illegal to fly a sign there,” he said.

Here it is not.

City code bans panhandling in much of the historic area, including on the Plaza de la Constitucion and St. George Street.

But since 2016, the city has voluntarily not enforced those location-based restrictions because a U.S. District Court decision in Tampa called the constitutionality of such enforcement into question.

Rules against “aggressive” panhandling, which the city has, can still be enforced. City code says such panhandling includes harassing, intimidating or touching people without consent.

That can happen, especially later in the evening, according to William Dingeman, who was holding a sign Tuesday near the Columbia Restaurant.

But it doesn’t have to be at night. In midafternoon as a group of four walked along the tourist-friendly shops, a request of “Please help me get drunk” came come from a group of men holding signs. The request was ignored and no other words were exchanged.

Dingeman said he knows that some business owners along St. George Street don’t appreciate his presence in the downtown area, but he insists most of what he makes he spends on the street, including a dress he just bought for someone.

“I bought her a dress here. I buy fish and chips at the restaurant,” he said pointing to different businesses down the street from where he was sitting.

Those who give the other homeless a bad name, he insists, are the younger members of the homeless community who often start fights later in the evening.

“They’re fighting each other,” he said. “But they always do it in front of us, so the merchants think it is us.”

Whatever problem exists, Michael Meagher said there is a simple solution — one that was used years ago when Jerry Springer was mayor of Cincinnati.

Meagher, who stopped to talk as he was walking down St. George Street with a heavy pack on his back, said permits are the answer.

“You count up all the panhandlers, you cut that by 30 percent and you hand out panhandling licenses and you arrest anyone that dooesn’t (have one),” he said.

Officials, Meagher said, could prioritize the permits so veterans and those with disabilities are first in line. Felons and “drunks”shouldn’t receive priority, he said.

With permits, Meagher argued, everyone would “know the rules” and if they are broken the person loses the permit.

“They could end that crisis with that licensing,” he said.

The city is currently exploring what options are available for changing panhandling laws and has retained a constitutional law expert who has also helped the city rewrite street performer regulations to give advise.

A report on those efforts is expected by December.

St. Augustine City Manager John Regan has said much of the panhandling solutions for downtown “have to be focused on deeper analysis of the problem and not be so focused on treating [the] symptom.”

“Panhandling is a symptom of something else,” he said in October.