People in St. Augustine are voicing concerns about panhandling, and numbers recorded by the city’s police department show an increase in calls related to panhandling and homelessness.
As part of the city’s effort to address homelessness and understand the problem, officials looked at police department records from March 22 to Nov. 13 in 2016 and 2017.
They found that calls for service to the police department in that time frame — where people mentioned “homeless,” “transients” or “panhandlers” — increased by about 200 calls year over year, according to a presentation given recently by City Manager John Regan.
“I was expecting to see a higher level of calls for service,” said Regan, who said he’s also heard more complaints recently in his office.
Barry Fox, police chief, said some calls may have been double counted because, for instance, more than one category could be mentioned in a one call.
The investigation found that calls for services involving the description “homeless” increased from 85 to 143. Calls for service involving the description “transients” went from 182 to 296 and calls for service involving the description “panhandlers” went from 53 to 83.
The calls for service did not involve an enforcement action, like an arrest or trespass warning, Fox said.
The study tracked enforcement actions separately during that time frame.
Transports of people by police because of arrests or for substance abuse or mental illness issues stayed about the same, around 300, according to Fox. The number of trespass warnings went from 371 to 498.
Simon Metz, manager at Reubel Fine Jewelry on King Street, said he’s noticed a spike in activity in the Plaza de la Constitucion in the past year or so.
He said homeless people congregate in the Plaza gazebo and other areas. Sometimes homeless people fight in the Plaza, which is across from his store.
The problems seem to be getting worse, he said.
“I’m sympathetic, but go somewhere else,” Metz said.
Regan recently detailed the city’s plans to help reduce homelessness and panhandling, which includes an educational campaign to discourage people from giving handouts to panhandlers and to encourage them to help the homeless in other ways.
The city isn’t enforcing location restrictions on panhandling because officials believe those rules are unconstitutional, but the city has hired an outside attorney to write a new panhandling ordinance for city commissioners to consider. Commissioners are expected to have more discussion on the issue on Dec. 11.
“We’re moving forward and we have stepped up enforcement, and we’re doing our best to enforce the ancillary codes like public drunkenness,” Regan said.