A rainy and unseasonably cold Tuesday in April on St. George Street did not stop the employees from PizzAlley from standing in front of the store with samples, or the men from the Minerals shop from trying to lure customers in with free demonstrations. Noticeably absent from the St. Augustine street, though, were the panhandlers — folks holding signs asking for help or monetary donations.
A new anti-panhandling ordinance went into effect on April 6 in the city of St. Augustine. According to the city, the intent of the ordinance is, “To recognize, but not limit the constitutional right of a person to solicit, panhandle or beg in a peaceful, non-threatening manner.”
The new ordinance prohibits people from panhandling within 20 feet of the entry or exit of commercial property; any ATM or financial institution; a city-owned or operated parking lot, garage, meter, or pay station; a public restroom owned or operated by a governmental agency; even trolley stops. The new ordinance renders St. George Street, one of the most frequented locations in St. Augustine, a panhandling-free zone.
David Carr, 42, a transient man who said he chose to live a traveling life, said he feels the new panhandling ordinance is a way to criminalize homelessness. He said they should have laws against aggressive panhandling, but to sit peacefully and hold a sign, he said, is free speech.
“People come with protest signs. How is that any different?” Carr asked, adding, “It’s up to you if you want to give.”
Cecilia Aiple, an officer with the St. Augustine Police Department, said it is not against the law to hold a sign, only to ask for money within the new regulated zones and times. She said that while officers will take action if they directly observe someone panhandling, they mostly respond to complaints from the public.
According to the city’s website, police responded to “complaints regarding homeless persons, transients and panhandlers 522 times,” saying it was a 63 percent increase over the same period in 2017 than in 2016.
Molly Meyers, manager of Go Fish Clothing & Jewelry, on St. George Street, supports the ordinance. She said many tourists have complained over the years, some saying they will not bring their families back because of the panhandling.
“When it was really bad, someone was sitting [panhandling] every 10 feet. A customer said it felt like it was a third-world country,” Meyers said. “It was clear something needed to be done.”
Meyers said police have been patrolling the area to ensure the ordinance is followed.
Aiple said no citations have been issued for violating the ordinance thus far because the department is focusing on educating the public about the regulation. She said violators will be issued with a written warning when first approached by officers. After an initial offense, panhandlers breaking the rule will be issued $100 citations, and after three citations, they will be arrested.
Carr said that the new ordinance could potentially backfire. He said mental illness and substance abuse are two big factors in homelessness.
“What do you think you’re forcing them to do? You’re pushing them to other avenues to make money,” Carr said. “What do you think they’re going to do?”
Meyers said she has noticed a difference since the implementation of the ordinance and feels it has been effective for business. As a Christian, however, she said she feels emotionally conflicted. She says she wants to be helpful but is unsure whether giving money is helping or feeding the problem.
“My prayer is that they find the help they need,” Meyers said.
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