Homeless debate in St. Augustine continues

By Emily DeLoach | edeloach@flagler.edu

After much debate, St. Johns County and the City of St. Augustine have come to an agreement over the homeless population: something needs to be done soon.

The City of St. Augustine has been looking for a way to move the homeless from its downtown areas for several years. City Commissioners held a workshop Sept. 5 to get input from local citizens. Local organizations such as St. Francis House, People United to Stop Homelessness and St. Augustine Catholic Ministries were present at the meeting.

Local downtown business owners were at the workshop to argue that the homeless were bringing their businesses down. St. Augustine police chief Loran Lueders was present at the meeting and he explained that the homeless cannot be removed from downtown if there is nowhere for them to go.

Leuders explained at the workshop that police could arrest homeless people only if they are breaking a law. He cannot remove them from a public area. After the panhandling ordinance was passed in January there have been fewer violators, and Leuders said the homeless know where they can and cannot panhandle since the law was passed.

“The public has the power to make the change,” Leuders said.

One thing locals can do is call police if they see someone violating the ordinance. He said police need the person to sign a statement against the violator in order to write a ticket. The offender may not be arrested, but they will be entered into the system and arrested if they are repeat offenders.

According to St. Johns County spokeswoman Karen Pan, the 50-acre County Equestrian Center located on Smith Road near Hastings is one option for a temporary homeless shelter. The $1.6 million center was completed last year.

The county has stipulated that the center would only be a temporary fix to the homeless problem and could only be used for one year. Pan said the county is looking to move quickly with the issue. She said the equestrian center has never housed one horse and has a large kitchen.

County commissioner Ron Sanchez estimated that there are 1,000 to 1,200 homeless in St. Johns. With regard to the unused equestrian center, he said: “I never would have voted to spend [$1.6 million] in that location. It would have done a lot of good somewhere else.”

St. Johns County residents who live close to the equestrian center are not happy about using it as a homeless shelter. The center is located near Flagler Estates and there are farms located around the area.

According to The St. Augustine Record, County Commission Chairman Ben Rich said the city needs a “relief valve” so the homeless do not ruin the tourist industry.

“I’m doing the best I can with an issue that no one wants to touch,” he said.

The Board of County Commissioners agreed to work with the city to use the equestrian center if necessary.

“The Board is researching different options and may need joint funding from the city and the county to build a new facility in the long run,” Pan said.

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