ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- The City of Saint Augustine is coming up with a marketing campaign to discourage tourists from giving to panhandlers.
Linda LaCerva owns Metalartz Gallery in downtown Saint Augustine. She agrees with the city manager that the uptick in panhandling in the historic district is threatening the local economy, an economy based on tourism.
"I think people are hesitant to walk down the street when they see every bench willed with people and backpacks and dogs and cats... I think it's not helping," LaCerva said.
City Manager John Regan said, "If we don't get on top of this, this is going to destroy our industry."
He has developed a plan to address panhandling and homelessness, which he points out are not the same thing.
"There is a big distinction between people who come just to panhandle and the homeless situation, those who are the less fortunate," he said.
Part of the city's plan is to create an education campaign, urging visitors and tourists not to give to panhandlers. The idea is to cut off the cash flow to the panhandlers.
"One reason we have so many panhandlers in St. Augustine is we have such a big pedestrian tourism trade," Regan explained. "There are so many people walking down St. George Street, it can be lucrative for panhandlers."
Regan met with the St. Johns County's Visitor and Convention Bureau this week. He said the board unanimously agreed to work on a campaign that would target tourists who are already in town. He said it would include posters, pamphlets and possibly ads. All would have the message: don't give to panhandlers. The education campaign would also provide information about how to help the homeless.
The city and the Visitor and Convention Bureau may be in a tight spot, trying to lure tourists while having to address the panhandling crisis at the same time.
"The panhandling -- not just in the urban core -- in the city is destroying our residential quality of life and is affecting our economy," Regan said.
Metalartz Gallery has a donation box. Right now, it collects money for local pet shelters, and LaCerva suggests something like a donation box could be placed in stores and restaurants to to collect money for organizations which help the homeless.
"People would feel not so compelled to give to somebody on the street, but they'd still be able to give something," she said.