Hurricanes, higher rents, development led to rise in homelessness

The City of St. Augustine is looking to curb the number of homeless people and panhandlers occupying downtown.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Panhandlers are becoming more visible in St. Augustine's busy tourist areas.  They sleeping in the city plaza gazebo and begging along the streets, right next to visitors.

Also in downtown is the St. Francis House, St. Johns County's only homeless shelter.

"The issue is much larger than what you see downtown," Judith Dembowski said. She runs the St. Francis House.

"Not everyone panhandling is actually homeless," she said. "I think panhandling and homelessness are two entirely different issues."

St. Augustine City Manager John Regan told the city commission Monday evening, " we are at a crisis level" when it comes to homelessness and panhandling.  He is laying out a plan to reduce both.

But first, you have to know why there is more of both.

There are more newly homeless because of hurricanes Matthew and Irma, Dembowski said.

"Because there is a lack of affordable rents. The places they (the homeless) were able to afford were damaged and they were asked to leave so landlords could fix things up," Dembowski said. "And so once fixed up, landlords could get  higher rents."

That left some people without places to stay.  Also, the hurricanes damaged the homeless shelter's building... leaving it working at about at a reduced capacity. So fewer beds are available.

There is a city ordinance that says no one can sleep in a public area, like the plaza during the nighttime hours.  But it cannot be enforced if the person has nowhere to go ... for example if the homeless shelter is full.

Meanwhile panhandling laws are hard to enforce.

"There are some issues from the legal side where courts have ruled against cities from being able to enforce panhandling," Regan said. 

He also told commissioners that more development of rural parts of the county and wet ground in the woods have pushed homeless out of camps and into the downtown area. 

So the city manager is proposing a plan to encourage visitors not to give to panhandlers, drying up their money source.

"People are contributing to panhandling," Regan said. "We've studied other communities around the country. That's a key principle is to discourage panhandling, but if people want to help the homeless, how to do that appropriately."

And that comes back to places like St. Francis House, which plans to expand the number of beds and find ways to get homeless people back on their feet.. but not if they are panhandling.

"It's written in the rules, they cannot panhandle," Dembowski said.

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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