St. Augustine City Manager John Regan outlined a sweeping plan Monday night to address a spike in panhandling in the city, one that involves agencies in the county, as well as more enforcement and education in the city.
The plan includes an educational campaign, as well as supporting growth of affordable housing countywide and the expansion of emergency housing — and funding a greater police presence downtown. Regan said he plans to bring back budget changes.
Commissioners voiced support for taking action, both now and in the long-term, to address panhandling and homelessness.
Mayor Nancy Shaver said about 20 percent of the city’s homeless are mentally ill or addicted, and there are more than 30 homeless camps in the county. Permanent supportive housing will take years to get, she said.
“There are people who are living in tents in our city who actually have jobs. They cannot get housing. … That’s where we are and it’s a real tough problem to solve,” Shaver said.
Officials also said they expect the problem to get worse with the cold weather.
The city in 2016 stopped enforcing its restrictions on where people can panhandle, citing a court case that brought the constitutionality of those rules into question. Regan recently called the spike in panhandling a crisis for some businesses and dozens of people came out to Monday’s meeting to speak.
People packed the meeting room Monday night, several sharing stories about panhandlers and saying the real issue is vagrancy, not homelessness.
Wade Ross, of St. Augustine, said police haven’t helped because they haven’t been able to see the issues he’s called to complain about. He asked the city to step up enforcement and focus on vagrants.
“Enforcement is going to be expensive, but if we don’t solve this problem, the expense due to loss of tourism will be even greater, not to mention the expense of a lawsuit if someone gets hurt or killed,” Ross said.
Shorter-term goals include getting people in the city, including residents, visitors and businesses, to stop giving panhandlers money since the flow of new visitors and new money keeps many panhandlers coming back. The campaign includes educating people on other ways to support homeless charities.
“We need to slow the money transfer,” Regan said.
More details on the campaign, including who will lead it, are expected soon after city officials meet with officials from St. Johns County, homeless service providers and other agencies.
Commissioners also supported adding a couple of officers to the police force to step up police presence downtown — they pressed Police Chief Barry Fox on what resources he needed to get more police downtown.
Fox said traffic and alcohol-related crime had already increased the need for police, and the panhandling issue only added to the strain.
“I can’t defeat homelessness with officers. … I need it for original reasons,” he said. “I can redirect it to be target specific.”
Regan also detailed homeless service providers in the county and their plans.
St. Johns County officials are considering putting millions of funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development toward building a homeless services facility off State Road 207 — Home Again St. Johns is leading the effort to build that facility.
He suggested the city and county have a joint meeting about homelessness, and they jointly work on increasing affordable housing and come up with a 10-year plan to reduce homelessness.
“Affordable housing at the end of the day is the holy grail of solving this problem. … That’s how you solve homelessness,” Regan said. “You get them in a home.”
The city also wants to help St. Francis House expand its capacity.
The homeless shelter downtown on Washington Street plans to increase the number of beds from eight to 30 that serve people who are forced to leave a public space, Regan said. The shelter also plans to increase regular beds for men and women, and housing for families, saying that’s possible because they’ve started a second facility off U.S. 1 for homeless youth, Regan said.
Having more emergency beds will allow the city to enforce more frequently its rule against sleeping in public. If there’s no open bed at a shelter, police can’t force homeless people to leave, Regan said.
Still, he said people should always call the police when someone is sleeping in public or on their properties, in part to help the city build a record, he said.