‘Complex,’ ‘challenging’ issue: perspectives on homelessness in St. Augustine

A man with a sign reading "Help the homeless," "Anything helps," and "God bless" panhandles on the corner of Hypolita and St. George Streets. Photo: Lauren Schroeder

By Katie Garwood | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Officials say affordable housing is the key to alleviating St. Augustine’s homelessness issue, but some within the community see a different issue to solve entirely. Members of the St. Augustine Vagrant Watch Group are more focused on solving the problems with what they deem to be the city’s “vagrant” population.

Recently, issues regarding homelessness have been discussed by the city commission, local television news outlets have focused attention on homeless camps throughout the county, and last month, the St. Augustine Police Department dedicated additional resources to address and help the downtown homeless population.

But Wade Ross, moderator of the St. Augustine Vagrant Watch Group, a Facebook group created to “document the desecration of St. Augustine’s historic area, said he would still like to see more being done to address issues “vagrancy” in the city.

“The city wants to constantly acknowledge that we have a homeless issue, but they won’t acknowledge these vagrants or the criminals that we have on our streets,” Ross said.

Vagrants, as defined by Ross, are those who use the city and its tourists as a means of income by panhandling, they sleep in public, and commit crimes in the city. Ross said they’re unlike the “true homeless population,” since vagrants “could work, choose not to, use drugs and commit crimes.”

“Affordable housing is for people who would like to work and to keep a home,” he said. “These people are content, I feel like, with their life on the streets, or using the St. Francis House and the Dining with Dignity services to survive.”

But for those who seek more affordable housing and services to help people out of homelessness, the presence of the watch group has, in some ways, detracted from that goal. Executive Director of the St. Francis House Judith Dembowski said the stereotypical image of what homelessness is to many in St. Augustine, isn’t entirely representative of the county’s homeless population.

“I am the first one to say there are bad actors,” Dembowski said. “I’m not going to deny it. I’m not going to say they’re all sweet and fuzzy and warm, and you should look beyond the exterior where they’re unwashed, and they don’t smell good and they’re yelling at you. But they’re not representative of the homeless population. There are 600 homeless kids in our schools, does anyone want to tell them that they shouldn’t have a place to live and they should just get out of our community?”

At a Jan. 28 city commission meeting, former Mayor Nancy Shaver, who since has resigned to focus on her health, gave a presentation updating the city on homelessness. In her time as mayor, and in the weeks leading up to her resignation, homelessness was an issue she wanted to focus on and share her findings with residents and commissioners. She also served on the St. Johns County Continuum of Care Board of Directors.

In the presentation, she listed eight characteristics of homeless people: Mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, criminal behavior, unemployed, disabled, poor and lacking affordable housing.

Of those eight characteristics, she said, only the last two contribute to homelessness. But Ross and others in the watch group disagree.

“The vagrants that we’re dealing with,” Ross said, “they have those first [six] problems that she’s not acknowledging.”

But while Shaver said the solution to homelessness is as simple as creating a sufficient amount of affordable housing, circumstances for those in the homeless community vary from person to person. It could be someone who missed a paycheck and couldn’t pay rent, or it could be a homeless family with children.

Shaver’s replacement, Tracy Upchurch, who served as St. Augustine mayor from 1990 to 1992, agreed, saying there’s “innumerable reasons” a person can become homeless.

He likened the issue to crime in Lincolnville, which he dealt with in his time as mayor. With issues of criminal justice, as well as homelessness, there’s only so much the city can do. It’s an issue that nearly every community faces, he said.

“We can’t paint all people on the street who are homeless with one brush,” Upchurch said. “It is a difficult, challenging issue that has economic, law enforcement, as well as moral implications.”

Ellen Walden, the executive director at Home Again St. Johns, said she’s noticed an increase in the amount of elderly people becoming homeless in the county, specifically widowed women. Shaver said she hoped those in the watch group “would be more involved in the positive side of helping people and understanding what the homeless population is.”

“It’s my sense that they believe a city is almost a gated community and it’s not, it’s a city,” Shaver said. “There are homeless people in every city throughout the country … It’s a big, complex problem.”

Wade Ross, moderator of the St. Augustine Vagrant Watch Group, and former Mayor Nancy Shaver share their thoughts on what they see as issues within homelessness in St. Augustine. Prior to resigning her seat as mayor to focus on her health, Shaver was close to the issue of homelessness, and served on the St. Johns County Continuum of Care Board of Directors. She presented to the city commission an update on homelessness just weeks before her resignation. Video: Katie Garwood and Lauren Schroeder

Difficulties in ending homelessness

Ross said many of the city’s homeless aren’t interested in making an effort to better their situations. There are those in the community who refuse services from the St. Francis House, and the services of other homeless organizations, Dembowski said. And they often have their reasons for doing so.

“Those who are very entrenched in their homelessness, they’ve been homeless for years or they’re very mentally ill or they are very addicted, are harder to engage,” she said.

The St. Francis House employs a street outreach team to help those who don’t come into the St. Francis House to get help themselves. But people who don’t want help, Dembowski said, are rarely seen.

But according Walden, the sooner people can lift themselves out of homelessness, the better. The more time a person spends being homeless, the more likely they are to get involved with drugs and alcohol as well, she said. That can be especially true for those living in camps.

“The longer a person is homeless, they just become hopeless and they don’t care anymore,” Walden said. “So it’s better to prevent someone from being homeless or provide them with the assistance and the services they need to get out of homelessness.”

Finding common ground with panhandling

Many of those who are served at Home Again work full-time jobs, but can’t afford a place to live, Walden said. And of the 40 she estimates who come in every week, just one makes a living panhandling. The ones who don’t panhandle “give him hell all the time.”

Panhandling, which is illegal in St. Augustine within 20 feet of places where monetary transactions occur, still happens in some spots in downtown St. Augustine. Much of what the Vagrant Watch Group does is document panhandlers on their Facebook group, posting photos of them as group members see them.

Ross said the police aren’t doing enough to enforce the panhandling ordinance, which in turn, enables them. Many of the panhandlers, he said, fall into what he deems to be the “vagrant” population.

“Some of them come here from other places because they don’t mind sitting and begging,” Ross said. “There’s no shame in it for them. But when you see a guy that has a sign one day that says one thing, and the next day he’s a war veteran, I’m not going to do any investigating. I just feel like this should not be happening here. This is not what I’ve moved to the city for.”

Walden said panhandling isn’t beneficial for the homeless population, and would rather those who do panhandle find a different way to make money – even doing something like mowing a lawn.

How to solve the problem

One of the main services Home Again provides is job assistance and connecting the homeless with employers, to eventually help them into stable housing and end their homelessness.

And for homeless service organizations across the county, that is the goal: to help people end their homelessness. Dembowski said the majority of services offered at the St. Francis House are designed to do that, with the exception of the eight emergency shelter beds paid for by the City of St. Augustine. Those beds were put in place so the police could enforce the camping ordinance downtown, which is in effect between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. every night.

From Dec. 1, 2017 through Oct. 18, 2018, 301 people utilized St. Francis’ emergency shelter beds. Of those 301, just 13 took advantage of the shelter’s programs to help them find permanent housing.  

“This is the one thing you don’t want to do – is provide someone just a free place day, night after night with no with no expectation that they move forward,” Dembowski said. “That doesn’t end homelessness.”

Members of the Vagrant Watch Group routinely call the police on campers throughout the city to get them into the St. Francis House, to move along, or if they refuse both, taken to jail.

But Ross said he feels the St. Francis House isn’t appreciative of what he and the group are doing to get campers into an emergency shelter bed. He said the group’s tendency to call the police on the homeless can be misconstrued as them “being anti-homeless,” which he said is untrue.

“We don’t want to kill them or nothing like people think,” Ross said. “They’re human too. They’re just broken.”

And just as homeless service providers in the area seek to end homelessness, Ross said he hopes those he sees on the streets are able to find better lives. According to homeless service providers, the sole way to accomplish that is through creating more affordable housing.

Walden said many people aren’t fit for homeownership, and most of the new construction in St. Augustine isn’t affordable for low-income residents. And for the majority of the homeless population, who can’t afford to rent or buy a home, that’s the reason they’re homeless in the first place.

“Affordable housing. Top of the list,” Dembowski said. “The majority of people who become homeless once will not become homeless again. They’re just a one and done … It’s the bad actors that unfortunately are seen to represent the whole.”

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