As the St. Augustine City Council gears up to debate changes to its panhandling statutes, officials have begun an expansive education program to help residents and tourists deal with what the city calls a growing problem.
Mayor Nancy Shaver and her city council colleagues admit chronic homelessness is a problem in their city for a multitude of reasons — lack of affordable housing, lack of federal dollars for homelessness initiatives and a lack of treatment options for the addicted or mentally ill.
But panhandling — a business of choice for many transients that involves asking tourists and other downtown roamers for money — isn’t the same thing, they say. And this second problem, Shaver said, is growing. In no small part because the city can’t enforce its existing panhandling laws after a Tampa court struck down that city’s ordinance last year.
Now the city has employed the services of a constitutional lawyer to help craft an ordinance that would win if challenged in court, Shaver said.
Michael Kahn is being employed by city officials to come up with carefully-worded ordinances, possibly including distance-based restrictions like prohibiting panhandling close to ATMs or storefronts.
“What we don’t want to do is do it over. We want to do it right from the ground up,” Shaver said.
The multi-pronged effort to make the kitschy and historic downtown tourist powerhouse more welcoming to visitors began last week with an education campaign spearheaded by City Manager John Regan.
“Folks [should] understand where we are, what the resources [are] that we need, to create this — I refer to this as a dry up the money plan — and really redirect people’s compassion to something that can really help our city and help our true homeless population,” Shaver said.
The education effort also includes a plan to implement cash boxes tourists can drop their extra dollars and loose change in that would go directly to nonprofits that serve homeless people.
Pamphlets and a visitor center’s program will also strive to explain to out-of-towners the difference between homelessness and panhandlers in hopes of stopping the generously-minded from giving their money to those that may be less deserving.
Shaver said point-in-time counts and other kinds of homelessness surveys help the city know which people are panhandlers and which are just homeless in need of help. The city council will take up a raft of proposals in its meeting next week.
The City of St. Augustine has posted a Q & A with City Manager John Regan and Police Chief Barry Fox regarding panhandling and homelessness. You can read it on the city’s website.