VWG: St. Augustine Is Not A Safe Place For School Trips

As many locals know, the Vagrant Watch Group is a local Facebook group dedicated to raising awareness about the issue of panhandlers in the downtown area. Recently, one of their moderators, a former City Commission candidate, Wade Ross, wrote a detailed letter to the Department of Education, warning them that St. Augustine may not be a safe place to bring children on field trips.

The letter contained more graphic pictures than we'd like to show. A lot of vomit, public urination, and feces. If you would like to see the pictures that go along with this letter, you can view it on the Vagrant Watch St. Augustine page.

I would recommend not viewing the pictures, and just reading the letter in full below...

To Whom It May Concern:

This letter has been written for the attention of the Florida Department of Education; however, if you are not part of the FDOE, you are being sent this information because you have been identified as someone who may be able to help. I will be sending it to anyone that may be of assistance to our community.

I am a veteran educator with 23 years of experience. My first responsibility in my classroom, before all else, is student safety. If you bring your students to St. Augustine for a field trip, I would like to make you aware of the unsafe conditions that we are experiencing.

The St. Augustine Vagrant Watch Group

I am a member and moderator of the St. Augustine Vagrant Watch Group on Facebook. We are a crime watch group composed of residents of the city of St. Augustine and St. Johns County, as well as those who love St. Augustine and want to stay informed regarding the Vagrancy Crisis and related crimes we are experiencing.

We have made attempts to work with our City Officials, the City Manager, and Law Enforcement with very limited success. We are at an impasse, and since the City of St. Augustine will not take any further action on this very difficult issue . We will be reaching outside the City for assistance with this public safety and health crisis. If you can be of any assistance, it would be greatly appreciated.

The Criminal-Vagrancy Crisis

In 2016, the Middle Courts of Florida struck down ordinances that made panhandling illegal as it is considered protected under the 1st Amendment Right of Free Speech. About this time, our City, in fear of a lawsuit, stopped enforcing laws and ordinances that address the crimes associated with chronic homelessness, which we call vagrancy. At that time, our Mayor, who has just been re-elected, went on the News and made the announcement that panhandling rules would not be enforced. Since then, we have had an influx of transients to our Historic City. Along with this influx, we have had a sharp rise in public camping, drunkenness, public urination and defecation, aggressive panhandling, and littering. We have had female minors physically assaulted. We have had residents and guests physically threatened and assaulted. The list goes on and on. The City eventually changed the panhandling ordinances; however, regular enforcement and public education have fallen flat, and our Mayor does not seem to think that we have a problem.

The Historic City’s Public Safety Crisis

I would like to take you on a photographic tour of what you may find If you come to St. Augustine. What you will be looking at is a regular occurrence in the Historic District. Whether you come with a spouse, a friend, or on a field trip with students, the first place you may come to is the parking garage. We call that area the safe zone for vagrants. For months, even with enforceable public camping ordinances, our City failed to take any action against the vagrants living in this area. On a typical night, we would have 20 to 30 vagrants sleeping in this area. One night, the count reached over 40. Without public restrooms, the campers would use the nearby grassy areas and bushes. It was also reported that this was a location for drug use, drug deals, prostitution, and as a chop-shop for stolen bicycles. This area became so filthy and smelly that a fire truck was brought in to hose down the area. Shortly after this point in time, after months of complaints to the COSA and one of our members being interviewed by the local media, the City has cracked down on the night-time sleeping, but the vagrants still gather there during the day.

The VIC and the Garage share a central area. Even though the City has put up signs, they are not effective because the police do not systematically patrol and cite offenders.

In between the parking garage and Visitor Information Center.

Please click on this link for more information on the vagrancy issue at the parking garage:

https://www.news4jax.com/news/florida/st-johns-county/concerns-of-homeless-safe-zone- at-st-augustine-arking-garage

After leaving the Parking garage, a visitor would typically head south on St. George Street, a pedestrian walking area with small shops, restaurants, and historic buildings. The oldest school house is located on this street, which is about 4 blocks long. The street has become a haven for alcoholics and drug addicts to beg for money to feed their addictions. Begging is their 1st amendment right, and they display signs that often reference drugs and alcohol. They use dogs and cats as props for sympathy. Many times, the dogs are pit bulls and it is not known if they are trained, socialized to be around other animals or people, or have the proper vaccinations.

We have witnessed vagrants smoking marijuana, giving away joints of marijuana, exchanging money, and throwing pills in the street before being arrested. Many of the Vagrants we have monitored have been arrested for drug-related crimes.

On St. George Street, you will typically find the conditions filthy. It was not like this 5 short years ago. Our group members have documented Vagrants urinating on the walls, on garbage cans, in bottles which are left behind, and at times, we will find vomit and human feces. Typically, when the City does not enforce the public camping ordinance, we expect to find or at least to smell human defecation and public urination.

At several of the intersections as you walk down St. George, you can find an assortment of panhandlers. We find these people drunk or high and unruly later in the day. They often harass visitors and have been reported trying to pressure minors to hand over their money. These people do not want for food; they are daily fed at either the St. Francis House or by a group called Dining with Dignity.

This guy is tweezing his beard and nose hair on St. George Street.

This is a violent habitual offender is once again stoned. Recently, while he was on probation, he assaulted somebody and robbed them. The robbery with a weapon charge is being dropped to disorderly conduct. We expect him to be release back out on our streets soon.

This guy is a regular who is drunk or high and passes out on St. George Street.

At the South end of St. George Street, we have our Historic Plaza de la Constitution with our Public Market area and our Gazebo. This is an area where the Vagrants set up day camps and sometimes, if our Watch group members are not prompting the police, they will spend the night there. Since the vagrants are too lazy to walk over to the nearby public restroom, they will urinate and defecate in the Plaza area. We have witnessed drunk Vagrants urinating in the same grassy area where families sit down and play with their children. The Gazebo itself is used as a urinal.

Many of our vagrants come directly from jail to our Plaza. Some vagrants with criminal records come from other states. A few blocks away there is easy access to food from a local charity, and access to tourist dollars through panhandling.

This photograph was taken inside the Gazebo after a group of vagrants spent most of the day there.

This gazebo in the Plaza is a regular bathroom for the vagrants and it reeks of urine.

Please, whether you are on St. George Street or in the Plaza area, do not sit on the benches. They are filthy. It has been reported that vagrants have urinated on themselves while sitting on the benches and often the backs of their pants are soiled with excrement.

Finally, a few blocks to the east of St. George Street you can find the Castillo de San Marcos and the Educational Spanish Quarter. In the past vagrants have been found camping on the Fort property, and the northeast corner has reeked of human feces.

We have made countless attempts to work with the City Officials, the City Manager, and law enforcement. We have exhausted all our avenues of recourse and are asking for your assistance. Our group has been lied to, ignored, and vilified. If you come to visit our Historic City or bring students for educational field trips, we ask that before you come, you demand that the City be made clean and safe through the systematic patrols and strict enforcement of City ordinances and State laws. We are including contact information for St. Augustine City Officials below for your convenience. Thank you for your assistance.

The contact information for the City officials: City Manager

John Regan jregan@citystaug.com City Commisioners Mayor Nancy Shaver NShaver@citystaug.com Todd Neville TNeville@citystaug.com

Roxanne Horvath RHorvath@citystaug.com

Leanna Freeman LFreeman@citystaug.com Nancy Sikes-Kline NSikesKline@citystaug.com

Additional Links Documenting the Vagrancy Crisis:

http://www.staugustine.com/news/20180520/man-talked-off-roof-of-wendys-after-4-hour- standoff

https://www.firstcoastnews.com/article/news/crime/st-augustine-police-arrest-homeless- man-for-allegedly-kidnapping-raping-woman-at-motel/77-525999653

https://www.news4jax.com/news/florida/st-johns-county/st-augustine/police-pipe-wielding- homeless-man-arrested-in-gas-station-confrontation

https://www.news4jax.com/news/florida/st-johns-county/st-augustine/homelessness-still- ongoing-problem-in-st-augustine

http://www.staugustine.com/news/20180623/complaints-arise-near-st-augustine-homeless- shelter-feeding-site