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Joe Mullins Steps Back From Harsher Homeless and Panhandling Rules After Hearing St. Augustine’s Rigid Approach

| August 14, 2019

St. Augustine City Attorney John Cary addressed the Flagler Public Safety Coordinating Council on St. Augustine's experience with a strict new ordinance cracking down on homelessness and panhandling this morning. Bunnell Police Chief Tom Foster, left, represented the one city in Flagler that followed St. Augustine's lead, with a similar ordinance, though limiting penalties to civil citations, not criminal charges. (© FlaglerLive)

St. Augustine City Attorney John Cary addressed the Flagler Public Safety Coordinating Council on St. Augustine’s experience with a strict new ordinance cracking down on homelessness and panhandling this morning. Bunnell Police Chief Tom Foster, left, represented the one city in Flagler that followed St. Augustine’s lead, with a similar ordinance, though limiting penalties to civil citations, not criminal charges. (© FlaglerLive)

John Cary’s 45-minute presentation on the complexities and cunning inherent to ordinances targeting panhandlers and the homeless gave Flagler County Commissioner Joe Mullins pause.

Mullins had previously urged the Flagler County’s Public Safety Coordinating Council–a collection of law enforcement, judicial, government and social service organization representatives–to come up with an ordinance or two that could be used to better control the county’s homeless population. No longer.

“I don’t want to do the panhandling permit now,” he said this morning after the presentation by Cary, an assistant city attorney in St. Augustine (and a candidate for Flagler County judge) who’s been at the forefront of that city’s rather draconian and relatively new panhandling ordinance and related regulations of sleeping outdoors, hygiene and crowd control in certain tourist areas.

“Some of them we do need, like the public urination,” Mullins said, “some of the things he talked about I think are very good for us to look at applying. A lot of them aren’t going to have any impact because we don’t have the panhandling issues they’ve got. So I don’t think the panhandling is something we’ve got to be as aggressive on. But I do think we have to be on public urination, public drunkenness, maybe have some boundaries around businesses and schools. I like some of that stuff that I heard. Maybe some ordinances on the camping. But that’s got to be evolved. Again, none of that needs to take place until we have something that we can offer them with true help.”

That help would depend on a partnership with a shelter in Volusia, since Flagler doesn’t have the facilities or organizations to provide the help, he said.

St. Augustine enacted its panhandling ordinance in April 2018. It bans panhandling after dark, bans it within 20 feet of businesses, ATMs, public parking lots, parking meters, public restrooms and transportation stops or hubs, and within 100 feet of schools and daycares. Bunnell and Daytona Beach followed, with slight variations. Bunnell’s ordinance is strictly citation-based, whereas in St. Augustine a panhandler can eventually be arrested, though by last February citations, usually carrying $100 fine that can be worked off through community service, outnumbered arrests by a three-to-one margin.

No ordinance may target the homeless directly. But indirectly, shrewd ordinances have room to maneuver.

“For whatever reason our panhandling ordinance has gotten national attention,” Cary said, “and we get calls it seems like every week from different jurisdictions, from their city attorneys, their county attorneys, their county policy makers, asking about our ordinance. I’m not sure exactly why or how it’s become national news and become nationally noticed, but it is something that we’ve been dealing with because it’s an emerging issue, panhandling, because of some recent court cases.”

One of the calls was from County Attorney Al Hadeed, who had been discussing Flagler’s pioneering short-term rental ordinance with Cary (St. Augustine is preparing its own ordinance). He invited Cary to address the coordinating council in the context of Mullins’s interests in the subject–and St. Augustine’s fresh, on-the-ground experience at the intersection of law, law enforcement and the rights of 260 homeless individuals counted there (196 men, 160 women).

For the most part, Cary said, the homeless are a peaceful population, their issues with the law limited to nuisance matters rather than serious crime–drinking, urinating, trespassing, “not what you’d consider violent offenses.” On rare occasions, more serious crime occurs, as when Jeremy Davis, 40, allegedly punched and kicked his former campsite mate after a dispute, killing him.

“You can’t say that it’s just solely an insular population that doesn’t affect the rest of the city and the rest of the community,” Cary said, nevertheless without citing evidence that such violent crimes among the homeless are more elevated than the rate in the general population: in that sense, the homeless population is no more or no less “insular” than the regular population, where murders and violent crime occur, but aren’t singled out as indicative of a crisis as homeless crimes often–and misleadingly–are. For example, a 2002 Department of Justice-funded study found that while the homeless are arrested more often, it was usually for nuisance issues, and they were charged with violent crimes proportionately less often than “housed” persons. A more recent study found that the harsher the ordinances, the likelier the increase in the severity of homeless crimes, while a pair of 2018 studies showed no link between homeless encampments and crime.

County Commissioner Joe Mullins chairs the Public Safety Coordinating Council. (© FlaglerLive)

County Commissioner Joe Mullins chairs the Public Safety Coordinating Council. (© FlaglerLive)

For now, the homeless are not considered a protected class legally, but courts are headed in that direction, Cary said. Paradoxically, cities like St. Augustine are enacting ordinances that tread the line between homeless rights and restrictions on the homeless. They do so–St. Augustine did so–by crafting ordinances that don’t single out the homeless, but are applied universally, at least on paper. In other words, a no-drinking law will apply to anyone with an open drinking container. A ban on collecting money in medians or any place must be enforced not just when a homeless person is panhandling, but when charities, including firefighters, are collecting money. That happens to be the case in St. Augustine.

“You can’t have laws that target homeless specifically,” Cary said. But the laws can be crafted in such a way as to get around the seeming discrimination. “If you can come up with a rational reason for your ordinance, the courts are going to uphold it.” But, he cautioned, the rationale must be backed up with ample evidence, and it can’t be gathered after the fact, when a government is defending against a lawsuit.

In St. Augustine, the city combined its harsh new ordinance with a carrot: while it imposes a $100 fine and potential arrest for panhandlers who break the law, the city also hired two “outreach” officers to focus on homeless issues, and to help individuals through alternatives to arrest. In one case.

One of the gentlemen who was in front of the court all the time–you get to know certain people by name in the court system,” Cary said, “looked me in the eye one day during arraignment and asked me, ‘Please help me, will I get treatment.’ So I worked with one of our outreach officers to get this man treatment, and we sent him up to Jacksonville for alcohol treatment program. The judge as part of the deal sentenced him but offered day-for-day commutation of the sentence for every day that he was in the program. So the treatment program was an alternative to the jail sentence that he was going to get. The result of that unfortunately was that he left the program after one day.”

He was arrested and returned to jail. “Even people that I think sincerely want help sometimes don’t have the internal fortitude, the internal drive to actually get help once it’s offered. There is no easy solutions to the problem,” the attorney said.

He then went through a series of ordinances on the books in St. Augustine–public drinking, sleeping in public, panhandling, public performances, and so on. The common thread Cary stressed was that while each ordinance carries penalties to violators, it remains the city’s burden, at every turn, to ensure that individuals have an alternative: individuals can’t be arrested for public urination if the city doesn’t provide a free public restroom, open 24 hours. Individuals can’t be arrested for sleeping on a public bench if the city doesn’t offer shelter alternatives. The city contracts for 8 beds a night, all year round, at a shelter, to ensure that when an individual is caught sleeping in a public space, officers can first direct the individual to the shelter, taking out the handcuff only if the person doesn’t comply. The cost to the city: $100,000. The shelter must be non-sectarian, otherwise the city could face a lawsuit from an individual who may feel his or her First Amendment rights have been violated.

A slide during Cary's presentation summarizing the intent of the St. Augustine anti-panhandling ordinance. (© FlaglerLive)

A slide during Cary’s presentation summarizing the intent of the St. Augustine anti-panhandling ordinance. (© FlaglerLive)

The ordinance against public drinking, for example, affected local breweries, because it banned people from walking out of breweries with growlers, because those are opened, unsealed containers. “We’ve been told this just last week that they will not fill up growlers because the person is immediately subject to citation and or arrest if they take it out on the public street when they leave,” Cary said. “So all of these ordinances that we have, you have to consider that they’re going to have downsides to the local businesses, to the local residents, because they have to be enforced evenly. You can’t allow somebody to walk by with a growler on one hand, and then arrest the homeless guy with a bottle of vodka in a bag on the other.”

Another ordinance seeking to limit the homeless from performing in any way, including playing music, in certain areas of the city, applies universally to all performers. That ended historical reenactments that used to be a common sight downtown. “With most of these kinds of ordinances that I’m talking about,” Cary said, “there are trade-offs, there’s no magical solution that’s going to allow you to make homelessness go away, and you have to apply all these ordinances evenly.”

The city’s latest target: public feedings, where non-profits bring food to the homeless, as happens in one specific area of the city. Cary wasn’t certain the city was intent on ending the practice, but it’s studying an approach modeled after Orlando’s, which restricts–but doesn’t ban–the practice downtown. That ordinance withstood a test at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, making it a model for other cities.

As for St. Augustine’s own, much-debated panhandling ordinance, “it hasn’t been upheld,” Cary said, “because it’s still relatively new, but I can tell you for sure, the ACLU has looked at it and we haven’t had anybody come in and defend any of the homeless people that we’ve prosecuted, and we’ve prosecuted dozens and dozens, maybe upward of 100 prosecutions under this ordinance since it was enacted last year. Not once has there been a constitutional challenge to it. I hope that’s because they looked at it and said yes, this complies with the constitution. So I think that may be one of the reasons people are modeling theirs after ours.”

Still, he stressed, “you can’t legislate homelessness completely. You can try to legislate some of the negative effects of it, but you’re even limited there. You can’t completely have an ordinance that bans panhandling at all. That’s clear at this point. You have to allow people to sleep in public if you don’t provide them some other alternatives. You can make a difference as policy makers, but you can’t legislate the problem away completely.”

Members of the Public Safety Coordinating Council had few questions: they’ve been generally cool–tolerant, but not enthusiastic–toward Mullins’s urging to develop any type of additional ordinances. There’s no interest in such ordinances in palm Coast, none from Sheriff Rick Staly, and combining those two forces, any county effort would appear doomed. Public Defender Jim Purdy asked about the trek of a defendant after arrest, through the court system. Many sit in jail for a week, waiting for arraignment: that ends up being their penalty, as most are then released. Others may get 60 days in jail. Only a few ask for the right to counsel.

No case has gone beyond the pre-trial stage. Most plead just to get out of jail. “The homeless community, they contact each other, we don’t want word getting around that if they start pleading not guilty, asking for an attorney, that the city is just going to drop their case,” Cary said. “Our interest is once we get to that point we want to go all the way with it. I have had trials before, jury trials, because people wanted them. It seems kind of on its face unreasonable sometimes to prosecute somebody and waste the court’s time, the clerk’s time, everybody’s time on a minor criminal offense. But part of it is just the incentives you provide. You don’t want to start getting the reputation that you’re going to drop it once it goes beyond a certain stage, because then that word will get out and everybody is going to start to ask to go to trial.”

13 Responses for “Joe Mullins Steps Back From Harsher Homeless and Panhandling Rules After Hearing St. Augustine’s Rigid Approach”

  1. Gene says:

    It’s a shame that Flagler has numerous organizations such as the sheltering tree church on the rock etc that have offered their properties , services and resources to address the needs of the homeless only to be mocked chastised and threats by our governing body. You see the homeless are in the eyes of Mr.Mullins and Mr.Cameron are sub human and are bad for economic development. So our commissioners pen a deal in secret with Volusia for a limited amount of bed space to the tune of $200k a year to hide our homeless. The problem is wealthy people don’t go into politics to help people they go into it to make themselves wealthier.

  2. Gordon Butler says:

    Don’t forget to accommodate the need for a cold weather shelter for those that are homeless and those that do not have heat in their place of residence. There was just one cold weather shelter in all of Flagler County which cost taxpayers nothing for the past 11 years until the Bunnell City Commission shut it down. The City of Bunnell has no plans to provide an alternative. Bunnell, The Crossroads of Flagler County, that hasn’t learned the lessons of the Cross…

  3. Michael Cocchiola says:

    St Augustine can slap lipstick on their pig, but their anti-homeless ordinances are just that…anti-homeless. They fire a blunderbuss at the homeless and don’t really care if businesses or bystanders are hit, so long as they hit the homeless. This is disgraceful.

  4. Dave says:

    Mullins said,
    ” That help would depend on a partnership with a shelter in Volusia, since Flagler doesn’t have the facilities or organizations to provide the help”

    Well how about we get the facilities and start the organizations instead of sitting around hoping the problem will go away!?

  5. Flatsflyer says:

    Do the math $100,000. divided by 365 divided by 8 equals $35. per bed per night. I’m sure this is a dormitory type facility not private rooms. Sounds like the “owner” has also attended Trump University and is well on his way to stick it to the government like Trump does with his charge of $750. per night per bed at Trump facilities along the US border.

  6. ConstantlyAmazed says:

    So now we have it. Now we have another “protected class” amongst us. The council feels that turning a blind eye to homeless people who commit “minor” crimes should not be prosecuted because it wastes the courts time. WOW. what constitutes a “minor crime” these days?

    When the county code board exposed this homeless crisis at the library they worked with the code officials of Palm Coast to bring this to the attention of the public and had the homeless camp cleared out. (That was the first headache the new county administrator had to deal with). Now after that was accomplished all we see are homeless people at the entrances of Walmart and other place with their “solicitation” signs.

    I’ll bet the commission wishes the day that Palm Coast opened up this can of worms about the homeless never happened.

  7. Since When says:

    St.Augustine’s approach is a little more in depth then Mr. Cary spoke of and not reflected of in the article. The outreach program that the SAPD utilizes is being recognized nationwide and is a trendsetter. They place homeless in programs, get them detoxed, connects them to mental health, reunites them to family and gets them off the street at night and into a bed. They also have an excellent program that connects the elderly and veterans to programs they are entitled too.

  8. Kat says:

    I don’t think we want to hide the homeless, I think we want to ensure that our city stays safe and clean. Does anyone remember the stats of trash, human waste and drug paraphernalia found and cleaned up in Palm Coast? Does anyone remember the residents of Palm Coast who didn’t feel safe using our library because of the filth in bathrooms and arguments going on between residents of “behind the library”. I really hope Joe Mullins doesn’t stop his plan now that the blue tents (which mayor Holland allows) even if they don’t follow paint color ordinances of Properties in Palm Coast (remember the local deputy that painted his house blue and he was told to change it to be in compliance?) Give the homeless food, the ones who live outside of Walmart…buy them self hygiene, water a sandwich . Enforce the panhandling, offer them a job- maybe the city could pay them and have them help clear out the debris along public trails that never seems to get done. I mean we clean up their debris-maybe partner with them to manage the weeds overtaking areas in Palm Coast. Keep Palm Coast a place people want to visit and live. Enforcing ordinances helps this goal. Joe Mullins are you worried about your reputation more than the city? Why the swift change? Palm Coast still has a homeless problem. And before I get the replies…I know that some homeless are in desperate need. These are the ones we would hope chose the services. I am referencing the homeless that just want to sleep
    where ever they are and ask for money from those that live and work here and are living
    paycheck to paycheck. Who can share where the homeless are living at this point? I’m sure the residents who live by these areas know.

  9. Jane Gentile-Youd says:

    Something doesn’t just sit right with me…

    Are we doing anything to help our veterans – especially the gentleman I saw in a wheelchair at a commission meeting in need of transportation and Heidi pleading again to increase the salaries of her bus drivers who keep quitting because they have been paid under $10 an hour?

    Many of the homeless are mentally ill and need treatment to get them back on their feet. Free housing and food is not the long term answer. A hospital which can help them have the desire to be productive human beings instead of placated wanderers does not exist in Flagler but I hear one may be coming soon.

    Shame on the high salaries and give away of our tourist dollars for nonsense . Helping our residents lead normal lives and not homeless camps will do more to help tourism than anything else.

    We have no maternity facility; we don’t have enough drivers to help the disabled with their daily needs; but we have plenty of money to give away for nonsense and have the audacity to (falsley) advertise
    ‘Flagler County has everything’. I guess it is a matter of interpretation of what everything is.

    I have no compassion for those who believe the world owes them free housing and food because they are too damn lazy. Our veterans, disabled should come first .. Advent Health tax free billionaires are to blame for pocketing profits and cheating us every year of a minimum of over $400,000 under their false umbrella of religion.

    We need, in my opinion, to re-set our priorities -can’t we as a county put some of the homeless to work helping code enforcement , cleaning our streets, driving buses for the disabled, for instance – to help clean themselves up – in exchange for real money instead of pandering to every one of them as though they have the same rights as we taxpayers do. Just my botted up opinion, Our values have become lopsided -my opinion. Time to re-evaluate our standards for a better world to live in.-my opinion. thanks Flagler Live for letting me vent.

  10. CB from PC says:

    The economy is near “full employment”, and there are “help wanted” signs on businesses.
    Granted, having mental health issues is an impediment.
    However, I see a lot of smartphones, the cozy campground they used to have by the Library, which is evidence that a lack of desire to work and staying wasted is what keeps them off the payroll.
    Their panhandling at Belle Terre and Palm Coast Pkwy is a traffic hazard. Drivers stop at a green light to give them money, leading to rear-end car crashes.
    If they want to be homeless, give them a 1 way bus ticket to San Francisco.
    Get them out of here and keep them out.cb
    Coddling them is an insult to people who work and pay City and County Taxes.
    Oh…I forgot, it is ok to violate our rights.

  11. carol says:

    What a waist of time and efforts.
    Has not been controlled before and never will.

  12. Tom says:

    Oh how they all dither

  13. Warren Celli says:

    The intentionally divisive homeless problem in Saint Augustine, and all over the planet now, is the result of the policy set by the xtrevilist few, noble liar corporate pig billionaires now in control. The policy is; “Full Spectrum Dominance” implemented by creating “Perpetual Conflict In The Masses”.

    Saint Augustine, with its existing plantation mentality, bought into this corrupt policy long ago.

    If you truly want to add light to the debate and conversation you have to get past the daily intentional distractions and look at Saint Augustine’s real history.

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