City passes new law prohibiting begging in parts of historic district
By Hannah Locke
Earlier this month, shopkeepers along St. George Street noticed cleaner walkways and more pleasant tourists. What was missing were the panhandlers who used to roam the streets and claim it as their territory.
Dawn, a saleswoman at the Columbia Gift Shop who declined to give her full name, was surprised to see none of the familiar faces of panhandlers outside her shop.
“A couple, a man and a woman, are actually working over there,” Dawn said, pointing to a new building getting ready to open. “They’re pretty decent people, and they’re taking pride in what they’re doing.” The couple she was referring to were some of the usual panhandlers who would sit and ask for money just a week earlier.
The St. Augustine City Commission passed a no panhandling law earlier this month for the historic part of town, which includes St. George Street, King Street, and the streets surrounding the Visitor Information Center and parking garage. The new law makes panhandling illegal, and allows police to issue a $100 citation for first offenses.
Police patrols of the area are also tighter than it has been in the past, something shopkeepers had been lobbying for.
“Downtown got a bad rep — locals would make an effort to avoid it. Tourists would comment on how terrible it was, how way out of hand it was,” said another shop owner along St. George Street who didn’t want to be identified.
Flagler College has its own concerns about panhandlers, such as whether or not the panhandling will influence enrollment. When prospective students and their parents visit the college and come in contact with the panhandlers, some of them could be scared away.
“It could have a negative influence on current students as well,” said Vice President of Business Services Kenneth Russom. “We as a college have to remain aware of what’s going on in the community.”
“I didn’t really notice them when I visited. But now I see them everywhere,” said Melissa Riley, a transfer student from California. “It’s kind of scary. The other day one said, ‘Hey sweetie,’ to me.”
While concerned, Russom does not see the panhandling issue as necessarily dangerous.
“It’s just not a good atmosphere,” he said. “We need to keep it respectable.”
The difference between the homeless and the panhandlers is vast.
“Panhandling has characteristics of a job,” Dawn said. “The same people were always out here around the same time everyday.”
Most of them are younger and “fully capable of handling a job,” Russom said.
The Salvation Army recently announced it plans to build a homeless shelter in West Augustine, and the city continues to work with downtown’s shelter, St. Francis House, to deal with the homeless issue.