POPE’S VIEW: Panhandling on St. George Street is no accident

On Monday night, St. Augustine City Manager John Regan will present a response to the “crisis level” of panhandling and homelessness in St. Augustine. The meeting starts at 5 p.m. at City Hall, 75 King St. The presentation is near the end of the agenda, but come early if you want a seat.

 

I am still skeptical about this presentation because solutions sound so good but never seem to pan out. We should all give Regan and the City Commission an opportunity to come up with the right plan. I also want to hear first-hand how his proposal for an emergency expense of $92,000 to come up with a short-term action plan will make a difference. It’s our tax dollars after all.

Anyone who walks on St. George Street, from Cathedral Place north to the City Gate, knows the state of panhandling and homelessness downtown. It’s not new. Even in years past, when we shopped the street with our mother after school, there was always someone looking for a handout to help feed themselves or family members.

In recent years, I have thought of those after-school walks. I still walk the Cathedral Place to Treasury Street block many times because I volunteer at an historic house within that block.

And like others who regularly walk around the core downtown, the impact of the city’s inability to enforce its no panhandling rules like it once did is more evident every day. And to our detriment.

It’s no surprise why and that reason is not new. In 2010, then-Police Chief Loran Leuders gave Record Staff Writer Peter Guinta his opinion for an article on panhandling. “As long as we have tourists, we’ll have people who will try to panhandle,” Leuders said.

Panhandlers know where the tourists are, especially the captive walking traffic, the pedestrian-only portion of St. George Street. And they know that there are always some people who will help them out.

When Regan explains his plan on Monday night, he will address that issue of educating the tourists and the rest of us, as well. The short-term action plan is titled “3Es −Engage Educate Enforce.”

It includes a campaign to slow panhandling that will include training the Visitor Information Center staff to educate the tourists. It also will include ways that the entire county can get involved along with the social services agencies who address the homeless issues. They have all been in on helping for a long time.

Regan also will reveal the results of a police survey of homeless people in our area. It’s a small sample, but it gives all of us some sense of who these people in need are. For example, all reported being homeless, 50 percent panhandle to survive, and 89 percent said they do not wish to be homeless.

Demographically, 11 percent said they are from St. Johns County, 32 percent from surrounding counties, 18 percent from other parts of Florida, and 39 percent from out of state.

Why St. Augustine? The overwhelming response: 42 percent said they were born here, been here before, or have family here. They know the lay of the land.

If you care about this matter, you should let your views be known, pro and con. Speak up, speak out. Regan’s presentation is already posted on the City of St. Augustine website.

It’s well worth the read. Homeless and panhandling affect our quality of life and our biggest economy, tourism.

Margo C. Pope was associated with The St. Augustine Record for 24 of her 42 years with Morris Publishing Group. She retired in 2012 as The Record’s editorial page editor.

 

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