Monday, June 25, 2018

Complaints arise near St. Augustine homeless shelter, feeding site (SAR)

"Dining with Dignity" is an oxymoron, as long as it's held outdoors without proper sanitation in the Florida sun, where it rains 1/3 of the days of the year.

We look to churches and charities to find a suitable indoor place for meals for homeless people. 

No more possible code or zoning violations by City.

No excuses are desired or required.

Compassionate city?  

Prove it.

Note to Record: it's sooo still tacky to show faces of poor people receiving assistance.

Journalistic ethics? Let's see some.  Now.

STOP using the words "vagrant" and "vagrancy," promiscuously, in defiance of the fact that "vagrancy" is an obsolete, value-laden label that ignores Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, finding vagrancy laws to be unconstitutional..

STOP giving ink to a private Facebook hate group, "Vagrancy Watch," some of whose members have presented themselves on Facebook as gun-toting stalkers, vigilantes, busybodies and energumen.

Complaints arise near St. Augustine homeless shelter, feeding site

By Sheldon Gardner
Posted Jun 23, 2018 at 7:01 PM
Updated at 6:02 AM
St. Augustine Record

As downtown St. Augustine grapples with homelessness and vagrancy problems, focus is shifting to Washington and Bridge streets.

A couple of key services are in that area for the homeless: the St. Francis House homeless shelter on Washington Street, now called St. Francis Housing Crisis Center, and a program unaffiliated with St. Francis House that’s called Dining with Dignity. Dining with Dignity provides nightly meals in a lot at Bridge and Cordova Streets with the support of various organizations that prepare and serve food on site.

Some say that the demand for services has outgrown the location, and the feeding program plans to move because of a complaint that was lodged. St. Francis House is one of very few places in St. Johns County where a homeless person might be able to get a bed for the night, but officials expect that to change in the next several years.

Debra Valenti-Epstein, who owns property on Washington Street, said people are being drawn to the area but aren’t being given the help they need. Some have been now camping out on sidewalks and using the bathroom in public.

“Over time, the crowds have grown, and St. Francis House can’t handle the crowds,” she said.

She said people come to the St. Francis House for lunch in the afternoon and come back later for dinner at Dining with Dignity, which does not provide bathrooms.

“The location to which they’re attracting people is not one where they’re providing services — that’s not fair to the people they’re attracting as well, ” Valenti-Epstein said. “It’s not a matter of being unkind. ... They’re not getting help.”

St. Francis House Executive Director Judith Dembowski didn’t respond to questions on the issue.

“Vagrancy is a policing/legal issue, not an issue of homeless,” she said, via email to The Record. “While I am happy to talk about homelessness, I am refraining from conversations regarding vagrancy/panhandling.”

Karen Hensel, assistant director of the organization, forwarded information from the board of directors and executive team.

St. Francis House, which has been part of the neighborhood for more than 30 years, has space for 16 men, 12 women and four families with children, according to the statement. The city also funds beds at the St. Francis House for emergency overnight shelter, which allows police to enforce restrictions against sleeping in public. People on the property have to treat each other and the staff “with dignity and respect,” according to the statement.

The statement added that the community’s support for the program was shown in the help provided in rebuilding after hurricanes.

The Dining with Dignity program is under the umbrella of Home Again St. Johns, and it has also received complaints.

Ronnie May, who lives in the neighborhood, said he’s fine with the feeding program and has supported it, but he believes it has outgrown the location. He and his wife regularly clean trash from their yards, and he’s seen people using the bathroom outdoors and regularly hears groups fighting and cursing.

“To me it’s just gotten out of hand, and it needs to move somewhere,” May said. “This little corner of Bridge and Cordova streets is not designed to hold hundreds of diners outside in the heat, no bathroom facilities, nowhere to wash their hands. It’s got to move.”

Recently someone complained that the dirt lot the program had been using wasn’t zoned for the activity, which is true, according to Troy Blevins, president of Home Again St. Johns. Because of that, the program has been temporarily using the adjacent city parking lot. But Blevins and other officials will be moving the program to another location, he said.

That location hasn’t been chosen yet, and Blevins declined to describe the options.

While some say crowds have gotten bigger, Blevins said the number of people who line up for a meal has been about the same for the past five years. If people behave badly while on site, they will be suspended, he said.

“I sympathize if it’s an inconvenience for [residents]. That’s why we’re trying to make this transition,” Blevins said. “It’s definitely a need because one of the people they serve ... it might be the only meal they get all day long. We’re open to suggestions, if anyone wants to suggest something to Home Again St. Johns.”

Casey Jones has been serving for years at Dining with Dignity with a group from San Juan Del Rio Catholic Church in St. Johns County. He and others from the church served a group of people on Friday.

“I don’t know all the issues relative [to the complaints]. One thing that I know is when I come down here, I put all my judgment away. I know these are people who need a good meal, and we do our best to serve them a very good meal,” he said.

Wade Ross, a moderator of the St. Augustine Vagrant Watch Group Facebook page, said the group has seen people sleeping on Bridge Street and outside of St. Francis House. Members of the group, including Ross, have been calling police nightly about campers.

City Code says sleeping in public is prohibited from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but the law can’t be enforced if no beds are open at the St. Francis House. The city pays for some emergency beds so the no-camping law can be enforced.

“We feel like there’s something wrong with the social services specifically with the cots that are paid for by the city,” Ross said.

Officer Cici Aiple, spokeswoman with the St. Augustine Police Department, acknowledged an increase in vagrancy in the area, but specific data wasn’t available on Friday.

Also, people have been coming to the police department lobby trying to reserve a bed, but the beds can’t be reserved, she said. They’re intended as a resource for officers who find someone sleeping in public.

“What we’re trying to do now is we’re passing out pamphlets with a list of resources available so ... that they don’t need to be out there laying out on the sidewalks,” Aiple said.

The city recently passed new laws restricting where people can panhandle as part of a broader effort to curb panhandling and address homelessness. Relief for those seeking shelter could come in the next five years.

St. Johns County plans to use about $13 million in federal funds from Hurricane Matthew to build an emergency shelter on State Road 207 for homeless people as well as affordable housing for both homeless people and others on the same site, said Joe Giammanco, who is leading the disaster recovery and hurricane-related funding process for St. Johns County.

The site is where Home Again St. Johns planned to build a large homeless services center, but St. Johns County is now leading the project. The details are being worked out with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, including who would ultimately manage the facility, Giammanco said.

“We know we have a shortage of affordable rentals in the county,” he said. “We don’t want to necessarily be a homeless shelter. We also want to be able to service the community as needed.”


Edward Adelbert Slavin
20 hours ago
1. Must be moved indoors, with proper sanitation, to assure “dignity.”
2. Record’s repeated use of archaic term “Vagrancy” shows a lack of respect for the disadvantaged, disabled and structurally unemployed.
3. “Vagrancy” laws were held unconstitutional in Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972).
4. Wikipedia explains that “defendants were charged with several violations under the ordinance: prowling by auto, being vagabonds, loitering, being common thieves, disorderly loitering, and resisting arrest. The Court held that the vagrancy ordinance was unconstitutionally vague because it gave too much arbitrary power to the police. The court found that the laws could criminalize a variety of innocent activities, such as “nightwalking” or “habitually living ‘without visible means of support.’” A valid law, the Court found, needed to be clearly written and evenly administered: “Those generally implicated by the imprecise terms of the ordinance -- poor people, nonconformists, dissenters, idlers -- may be required to comport themselves according to the lifestyle deemed appropriate by the Jacksonville police and the courts. Where, as here, there are no standards governing the exercise of the discretion granted by the ordinance, the scheme permits and encourages an arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of the law. It furnishes a convenient tool for “harsh and discriminatory enforcement by local prosecuting officials, against particular groups deemed to merit their displeasure.”... It results in a regime in which the poor and the unpopular are permitted to “stand on a public sidewalk... only at the whim of any police officer.”
5. Inform yourself about our Constitution. Read Papachristou: « less

Patrick Sullivan
23 hours ago
I’ve worked with dining with dignity it’s a solid organization. The problem as I see it is nobody gave a crap with what was happening in Lincolnville for years and years. Everyone was fine with the St. Francis house being back there because it was considered a bad part of town. Now that money is moving in they want to force out the St. Francis house and other charities which were already forced into “the bad part of town” years ago. It’s true that we aren’t addressing the problem just treating a symptom by feeding and sheltering the homeless but if you keep it under the radar and in the bad parts of town it never gets addressed. People bought houses near the only homeless shelter in St. Augustine and are complaining about seeing homeless people do homeless things. Keep it all there and real and in people’s faces until we can figure out a real solution. The vast majority of them are mentally ill which they self treat with one of the only drugs they have access to and can afford (alcohol) they need psychiatric attention more than anything. « less

Melanie Simpkins
1 day ago
I’ve been a part of feeding the homeless through Dining with Dignity since the beginning. There are not hundreds going there to eat. It ranges from 60 to 95 which was the highest we have ever fed. It takes about 45 minutes to feed everyone. In five years we have had to ask a handful of people to leave who were cursing or not acting appropriately. The police monitor the lot when we’re there. When you are feeding someone their only meal for the day most of the time you thank God you were able to help them. While I understand a few of the diners may not obey the rules once they leave, this should not be a reason to punish the majority who do follow the rules and just need a hot meal. Dining with Dignity is there to provide a basic need, food, not solving the homeless problem. Those who don’t understand that I really feel sorry for them. Hopefully they are never put in that situation but if they are I hope someone will feed them. «

Richard Guzinya
1 day ago
Give a man a fish you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

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