[Hpn] St. Augustine businesses push panhandling bill 06-14-01

wtinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Thu, 14 Jun 2001 07:40:00 -0400


           Thursday, June 14, 2001


            St. Augustine businesses push panhandling bill


             By Alexa Jaworski
             Times-Union staff writer

             ST. AUGUSTINE -- City business owners are begging officials to
 pass a law that would clamp down on panhandlers they say are scaring
 customers.

             The proposed ordinance is expected to be presented to the
 commission June 25. It would prohibit panhandling in the core historic
 downtown area -- including St. George Street, Charlotte Street and the
 bayfront, which is about 10 percent of the total area of St. Augustine,
City
 Attorney Jim Wilson said.

             Some may argue that begging is a First Amendment right, but
 Wilson said as long as another venue is provided -- and in this case, the
 other venue would be the rest of the city -- he thinks the ordinance would
 be constitutional. The proposal would reflect one passed in Fort
Lauderdale,
 where officials outlawed begging in the city's tourist area along the
beach.

             The issue was brought to the forefront a few weeks ago at a
City
 Commission meeting by an innkeeper who said his customers complained to him
 about being accosted by panhandlers.

             "A growing number of customers at our properties tell us of
 negative experiences they've had," said Joe Finnegan, owner-innkeeper of
 Casa de Solana and St. Francis Inn. "We've had some who called us and
wanted
 us to pick them up downtown because they felt threatened."

             City Commissioner Raymond Connor said he supports creating the
 ordinance and has had actual experiences of people coming up to him and
 begging aggressively.

             "We are having some problems in the historical area," he said.
 "That is not good for the image of St. Augustine or any place."

             Local homeless agencies and advocates said they generally
 support the law.

             Although not opposed to the proposal, Jean Harden, a member of
 the board of directors for the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of
 St. Johns County, said she would like to see officials find a solution to
 the underlying problem.

             "The panhandling law will stop the panhandling, but it will not
 stop the need," she said. "The men are hungry, they need money to call home
 or get a room for the night."

             She said, however, that her agency doesn't encourage
 panhandling.

             Archie L. Williams Jr., executive director of St. Francis
House,
 which is the only homeless shelter in St. Johns County, called it "a
 wonderful law."

             "I don't know why they didn't have it decades ago," he said,
 adding that most of the time, panhandlers are not looking for money for
 food. "Most of these people are able-bodied. There is no excuse for
standing
 in the street begging tourists, citizens or anyone else for money."

             He added that if they are hungry, they could apply for food
 stamps and that since he became director in 1994 he cannot think of anyone
 who has been turned down for them.

             City Police Chief David Shoar said until an ordinance is
 approved, there is not much an officer can do unless a panhandler
physically
 harms someone.

             "We've had some complaints and there seems to be an increase in
 that," he said. "Oftentimed it's reported as a suspicious person, so it's
 hard to determine if it's panhandling or not."

             In Jacksonville, an ordinance prohibits aggressive begging or
 panhandling anywhere in the city, aggressive meaning going up to people and
 touching them or causing some kind of physical contact, blocking their way
 or anything that is more than passively asking for money, said Larry
 Pritchard, assistant state attorney and legal adviser for the Jacksonville
 Sheriff's Office.

  The Florida Times-Union