Solving or even reducing the city of St. Augustine’s panhandling and vagrancy crisis will take more than one step or solution. One part of the city’s efforts, thus far, is Officer Dee Brown.
Brown, who has been with the St. Augustine Police Department for about a few years, recently took on the role of community affairs officer.
Part of his job is to build relationships with people, including service providers, panhandlers and vagrants.
“We have a proliferation of homelessness and panhandling inside our city,” City Manager John Regan said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is improve our outreach, showing the city working hand-in-glove with service providers.”
The city isn’t enforcing its laws against panhandling on St. George Street because of a U.S. District Court case in Tampa that found panhandling is protected by the First Amendment. The city is still enforcing laws against aggressive panhandling, which includes harassing people.
Brown visited St. George Street on Tuesday afternoon to talk to panhandlers. It’s part of his regular routine.
“Just make sure there’s not any aggressive panhandling, making sure they’re obeying the laws, and … just making sure they’re not harassing any patrons,” Brown said.
Police Chief Barry Fox said Loran Lueders, the former police chief, created the community affairs officer position but it hadn’t been filled because of manpower shortages.
The community affairs officer also visits schools, organizations and deals with neighborhood problems to try to find solutions to issues that don’t require arrests, Fox said. Brown will be doing more of those types of things when panhandling and vagrancy is less of a focus for the city.
Brown and other officers frequently make contact with people who are drinking in public or violating other laws, and they can educate them about the issues, Fox said. Brown is also learning the details of local services so that he can better connect people on the streets to resources.
Brown said one of the challenges he’s seen so far is that some people aren’t interested in getting help. When that happens, there’s not much that can be done other than continue to enforce existing laws, he said.
“They want to drink … or whatever vice they have,” Brown said. “And they don’t care about housing.”
Homelessness and panhandling aren’t the same, and the city is involved in several efforts that address both, Regan said.
Regan plans to meet with St. Johns County Administrator Michael Wanchick this week to talk about a joint plan for addressing homelessness, he said. Also, the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, &The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau is working on an education program to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers, he said.
In February, the city expects to get a look at new panhandling rules written by attorney Michael Kahn, Regan said. Kahn has proposed that the city adopt distance-based restrictions such as prohibiting panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM.
Kahn has also stressed that the city could get sued for putting new rules in place.
The St. Augustine City Commission this week supported making it the city’s policy to use taxpayer dollars if necessary to cover employees, such as police officers, who are sued for properly enforcing city regulations. The first step in that process would be seeing if the city’s insurance carrier would cover the cost. If not, the City Commission would consider using public money, according to a resolution presented Monday night.
The commission directed City Attorney Isabelle Lopez to work with Regan to put a policy in place.
“Whatever the laws are, we will enforce them,” Brown said. “Whether it becomes an issue for us or not, we’re just going to enforce the laws.”