ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Many merchants in downtown St. Augustine believe homelessness is driving away customers and the problem is growing out of control.
They said the homeless population has skyrocketed in recent weeks, and it’s affecting their businesses in the historic district, particularly along St. George Street.
“St. Augustine is a spot where people come looking to get away, hoping to find a better future for themselves. But a lot of times, that better future isn’t always the highest standard of living,” St. Augustine resident Deborah Kemper said.
Business owners attribute an increase in “aggressive panhandlers” to a court decision that overturned a ban on panhandling in Tampa. The decision ruled it was unconstitutional to arrest someone for panhandling.
“I feel like it’s just a reminder of -- there’s a bigger problem, and I don’t know how to address it in the moment,” tourist Carrie Mills said. “Sometimes I give money. Sometimes I don’t. But I feel like it’s -- really, as a society, it needs to be addressed on a much deeper level.”
The city of St. Augustine has partnered with St. Francis House, a local homeless shelter, to help get people off the streets, but the homeless say they're not causing problems for anyone.
“If you’re flying a cardboard sign and you’re just sitting there minding your own business, it shouldn’t be a problem. Right?” Jesse Lucardi said.
Kemper sees both sides of the issue.
She was once homeless in St. Augustine herself and said there is an answer to the problem.
“I think the solution has to be a combination of faith and community effort and self-responsibility,” Kemper said. “A lot of people don’t even know what the next step is.”
The St. Augustine City Commission is expected to take up the topic of new panhandling rules next week.