Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

St. Augustine Businesses Feel Impacts of Panhandling; in Light of Growing Vagrancy Issue, Commissioners to Discuss New Rule

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

St. Augustine Businesses Feel Impacts of Panhandling; in Light of Growing Vagrancy Issue, Commissioners to Discuss New Rule

Article excerpt

Byline: Sheldon Gardner

Business owners and others say panhandling is threatening St. Augustine's reputation and affecting businesses.

"If something isn't done, it will tarnish the image of the town for a long time," said Beata Kosakowska, owner of Cafe del Hidalgo on St. George Street.

Kosakowska talked about a series of problems she's observed, and experienced, as a business owner related to homeless people and panhandlers - and she's not alone. Others say something must be done to curb the problem before it gets worse.

People use the public bathrooms near her cafe to wash their bodies, she said. Every day there's a panhandler near her shop soliciting for money, which deters business.

"I'm so disgusted, I'm selling the business," she said.

Kosakowska, who has helped homeless people, said police should patrol St. George Street more. She added there should be an effort to curb drug use and provide more services outside of downtown.

Because of a 2016 U.S. District Court case in Tampa that found panhandling was protected by the First Amendment, the city of St. Augustine stopped enforcing rules in 2016 that restrict where people can panhandle. But aggressive panhandling, like asking for money multiple times and intimidating people, is still prohibited in St. Augustine.

An outside attorney is writing new panhandling rules. Whether they will be adopted will be up to city commissioners, who are expected to discuss the issue more on Monday. The rewrite is part of the city's plan to address not just panhandling and vagrancy, but also a lack of affordable housing in St. Johns County and emergency shelter beds.

Despite the city announcing plans to address a spike in panhandling, people who live and work downtown have still been looking for answers. They've posted photos, videos and stories to the St. Augustine Vagrant Watch Facebook page of things such as trash left on sidewalks and people sleeping or urinating in public.

About two dozen people came to a meeting Wednesday night at City Hall where the city manager and police chief answered questions about the problem. …

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