Florida discusses anti-homeless laws

NOTE BY NORSE:  The Jacksonville FL Times-Union has collected some of its stories about homeless people and the oppressive laws they face at http://jacksonville.com/special/homeless/index.html .  Two of these stories I reprint below.   They were passed on to me by Tony Ciampi, whose home is on wheels.

Tony and dozens of others face criminalization come 7 PM Monday at the Palo Alto City Council’s second reading of the ban on vehicular habitation which makes”human habitation” in a vehicle within Palo Alto a crime.  This is defined as “the use of a vehicle for a dwelling place, including but not limited to, sleeping, eating or resting either single or in groups.”

The ordinance is on page 17-18 of the lengthy staff report at https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/35333
A second anti-homeless ordinace is up for a first reading on the same agenda that sets curfews on all Community Centers.   E-mail the Palo Alto City Council to oppose both laws at citycouncil@cityofpaloalto.org .   CC a copy to HUFF if you do.

Meanwhile Santa Cruz uniformed thugs and marijuana marauders are busy busting homeless camps and confiscating marijuana with our local aspiring blue-uniformed Bumbuster Deputy Chief Steve Clark ramping up the hate propaganda against homeless people.  (See http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/santacruz/ci_23880596/santa-cruz-police-clear-hundreds-pot-plants-trash?source=rss_viewed )  Medieval reactionaries who roar about pot and illegal camping would apparently prefer the homeless do the housed meth lab thing and start camping in residential neighborhoods?

Cities consider ordinances to force homeless into shelters
By Derek L. Kinner  Times-Union staff writer

City officials in Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach are considering new ordinances that would send more homeless people to shelters, if not jail, at a time when shelters are full and laws already cover crimes like trespassing and panhandling.

Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover said outlawing sleeping in public or private areas without permission is a good idea, even though enforcement would be problematic when shelters are full.

”I really see this as another tool for us to deal with the negative impact of the homeless,” Glover said.

Police could jail people sleeping in those areas who refuse to leave or go to a shelter within 36 hours. A second arrest could bring a sentence of up to 15 days in jail or a $500 fine.

 A group of homeless men hang out on Jacksonville beach to pass time before an evening meal is served at the Mission House.
— Rick Wilson/Staff

At the Beaches, police would be asked to give the homeless a ride to a shelter 20 miles away in Jacksonville.

Opponents say the proposed ordinances are fraught with constitutional concerns, enforcement issuesand logistical log jams.

They say the proposals are too similar to an ordinance passed in Jacksonville in 1995 that a Duval County judge declared unconstitutional a year later.

The judge said that ordinance was confusing, vague, constituted cruel and unusual punishment and incarcerated people in a shelter when no violation of law had been committed.

City attorneys are appealing that ruling, but Jacksonville City Councilman Howard Dale, sponsor of the legislation, does not want to wait.

”Without taking sides in whether the judge was right or not, I’m just saying let’s not wait on the courts,”

Dale said.

The main difference in Dale’s proposal is that homeless people would be given 36 hours to find shelter, where the old one had no time limit. But it does not address the judge’s other concerns, including cruel and unusual punishment and incarcerating people in a shelter without a violation of the law.

”There’s no intent to criminalize homelessness,” Dale said. ”It will affect those people who are sleeping, lodging, or camping in public parks and streets without permission to do so.”

In Jacksonville Beach, where there is no shelter, Police Chief Bruce Thomason supplied the first draft of that city’s proposal.

”I’m not saying homeless people shouldn’t live in Jacksonville Beach. I guess it would depend on where they were,” Thomason said.
Asked where homeless people should live, Thomason said, ”No particular place comes to mind.”

Challenges are certain

Ward Metzger, the assistant public defender who won the Jacksonville case in which the last ordinance was declared unconstitutional, said he is poised to fight new ones if the respective city councils approve them.

Metzger said the cities already have laws to cover homeless people who cause problems.

For instance, breach of peace can be charged if someone urinates in public. And police can bring charges if a person persists in panhandling.

”If someone is being a nuisance, I think the trespass statutes take care of that problem,” Metzger said. ”Simply locking people up because of their status of being homeless, in my mind and after researching the laws of this state, is unconstitutional.”

Metzger said his office will not hesitate to challenge any new statutes.

”You have to understand that the ultimate problem is these people don’t have anyplace to go,” Metzger said. ”If someone else says, ‘No, I shouldn’t have to go to jail,’ we would represent that person. No matter what wording is in there, it would not be constitutional.”

And a recent case in Miami could spell doom for any bill prohibiting sleeping in public.

Miami officials were forced to pay homeless people who had been arrested $600,000 in restitution, plus another $900,000 in legal fees, after a federal judge ruled that arresting homeless people for ”performing such activities as sleeping, standing and congregating in public places” violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.

No vacancy

Shelter workers hate to do it, but it often happens. People are turned away from facilities because they are too full. When temperatures drop to freezing or below, lines form outside shelters.

Duval County’s homeless population exceeded 3,000 this year for the first time, with about 400 sleeping on the streets and 2,500 in shelters, according to a February census.

”We can expand a little on those emergency nights,” said Linda Lanier, director of the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless. ”We can put 30 people in a classroom.”

The center, the only one in Jacksonville financed by the city, can sleep about 250 men on the concrete floor of its pavilion. That cap is raised on cold nights or nights when there is a high demand.

Workers say it fills up four out of seven nights. Classrooms normally used for teaching people how to get off the streets are turned into makeshift camping areas.

In October, a state program that forces people off welfare rolls after two years will reach its second anniversary, meaning people in the program when the two-year deadline was imposed could very well end up on the streets, Lanier said.

 A resident of the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless arises from sleep as sunlight shines into the pavilion area while other homeless men sleep on the concrete floor.
— Rick Wilson/Staff

If the proposed ordinances become law, police in both cities could be dropping off homeless people nightly at the Sulzbacher.

Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney said he does not think the ordinances will affect shelter populations greatly.

”I don’t think we’re talking about that many people,” Delaney said.

But the mayor said the city would consider expanding the shelter if overcrowding becomes a persistent problem.

Dale said that during two public workshops to discuss the proposal, the issue of shelter overcrowding has been broached.

”We don’t have a plan ready to propose to deal with those situations. But one idea being considered is a moratorium on arrests at those times,” Dale said.

Glover said his officers would be in a dilemma.

”In my opinion, I just don’t think that arresting them is an option in that case,” the sheriff said.
That means that, if shelter workers are accurate, the ordinances would be useless four out of seven nights under current conditions.

No daytime relief

Business owners, who make the most complaints about homeless people, say their biggest concern is when their customers are hassled while trying to visit downtown Jacksonville or the boardwalk in Jacksonville Beach.

”The general concern on my end are those groups that are rather aggressive toward getting benefits without doing anything,” said John Delaney, who owns Delaney’s Pizzeria on the boardwalk in Jacksonville Beach. Delaney is no relation to Jacksonville’s mayor.

”They approach the public with their hands out,” he said. ”They do it in all kinds of ways, like, ‘Ma’am, you have beautiful children. Could you spare a dollar?’ ”

Delaney said he has seen entire families turn away from his restaurant after being bothered by panhandlers.
It’s no different in downtown Jacksonville.

”Most of my customers are very, very uncomfortable with this [panhandling],” said Sam Bucholtz, who has managed the Luggage Shop Inc. for more than 40 years.

Bucholtz said some homeless people wander into his store from Hemming Plaza across the street.

”Some will come in inebriated; they’ll get nasty,” Bucholtz said.

He blames the homeless for night-time ”smash-and-grab” burglaries at his shop, and says he had to put up a metal gate to protect the property.

”It looks like the lower east side of New York City,” he said. ”It’s an awful thing to have to do, but we did it.”

Still, pizzeria owner Delaney said the proposed ordinances will do little, if anything, to alleviate his problems.

”If you apply these ordinances, these people are still going to be out in the public during business hours and gone at night,” he said.
Bucholtz, however, thinks a new law will help.

”To a certain extent, any activity around here at night that would be curtailed, like smashand-grabs and using the bathroom, would be helpful,” he said.

Jail over shelters

Many homeless people themselves say a new ordinance is just another tool for police harassment.
In a series of interviews during the last three months, some people on the streets say there is a reason they lived outdoors – they hate shelters.

Most said they would take jail instead of a shelter because of thievery, violence, disease, racism and a loss of personal freedom they experience in shelters.

”I’d rather go out in the middle of the highway than live in Sulzbacher,” said George Cotton, a homeless man who recently lived in San Marco.
Charlie Bell, a shift supervisor at Sulzbacher, said things run smoothly at the shelter, though there have been thefts.

”It’s no different at home,” Bell said. ”You have to watch your stuff. If you leave your house open, somebody’s going to take your stuff.”
To offset some of the thefts, the shelter provides lockers for homeless people for $1.50 a week.

Gertrude Quarles, a homeless woman living under a downtown entrance ramp to Interstate 95, said she does not like the idea of anyone forcing her into a shelter.

”I don’t know why they want to do that to these people [homeless] – they’re just trying to fend for themselves without other people’s help,” Quarles said.

Some homeless people say police already hassle them almost every day. Glover said his officers have a ”zero tolerance” policy and will arrest homeless people for any offense.

During a recent week, police in Jacksonville arrested 53 people listed as transients on 88 charges, including trespassing in condemned structures, public drinking and aggravated assault.

During the same period in Jacksonville Beach, six people received citations for public drinking or urinating in public, and six others were arrested on seven charges.

Tony Mills, 34, becomes angry when discussing police and the proposed ordinance.

”I’ve seen all kinds of things the police do to people,” Mills said recently in Confederate Park. ”Where is there for homeless people? We come here to congregate every day. They come out here and hassle us.”

Things are no different in Jacksonville Beach, according to Royce ”Dawg” Hardy, 42, who has been homeless for five years and stays at the beach. Hardy has a long list of citations for drinking in public.

”They constantly harass and harass and harass you,” he said.

He agrees he drinks on the beach a lot. But he said the police often bother him when he’s doing nothing wrong, like sleeping on the beach, which is legal. They run identification checks, then leave, he said.

Some city officials say they sympathize with people who want to live outdoors, but there is a limit.

”Beyond our obligation to provide a warm place, a meal and a bath, I don’t believe the homeless have a right to infringe on private property or take over a public park,” Jacksonville Mayor Delaney said.

Slow going

Dale has said from the beginning he wants the proposed ordinance discussed completely before the full Jacksonville City Council votes on it. Beaches officials are following Dale’s lead.

And Dale still has numerous questions to answer about his proposal. That became clear when, in a recent interview, Dale said he was

unfamiliar with Jacksonville’s current loitering law. He also said the city did not have a law against panhandling.

But Glover said the city’s loitering law does prohibit panhandling, the main concern of business owners. The ordinance prohibits people from loitering, soliciting or begging in places open to the public, including building entrances, doorways, lobbies, elevators, foyers and independent parking lots.

”Part of my reason for going slow on the bill is to make sure everyone in the public has an opportunity to contribute,” Dale said.
Jacksonville Beach’s proposal is patterned after Dale’s bill. It is on hold while the city’s attorney reviews it, though the Jacksonville Beach City Council unanimously approved a first reading in February.

While transporting the homeless out of town already is a common practice – Lanier said Sulzbacher workers are constantly in contact with Beaches police, who deliver homeless people to the shelter – Thomason said an ordinance is necessary to help lower crime.
Thomason said he agrees with a woman who recently said a lot of people spend a lot of money to live at the beach. If homeless people cannot afford to live there, why should they be different from anyone else, he asked.

”What we’d like to see them [the homeless] do is simply obey the law just like most people do,” the chief said.

Cities need to attack  homelessness, not homeless
Tonyaa Weathersbee  Times-Union columnist

Chances are you’ve stumbled across someone like Tennessee before.

The dunes and sea oats of Jacksonville Beach are his home – even when freezing temperatures turn the sand into a slab of chilly grit. He eats at the local soup kitchen. Doesn’t work. Begs for money and brags about it.

 Tennessee rises from sleep while his friends wait for him to wake up so they could all go find breakfast.
— Rick Wilson/Staff

He’s the Willie Horton of homelessness. He’s no murderer, but he is a stereotype that exploits our fears and fuels our laws and social policies all too often. And it is the Tennessees of the world – the snoring slackers we stumble over in doorways, who reek of malt liquor, musk and urine – who are compelling Duval County lawmakers to rework ordinances that would jail them for sleeping outside.
In March, I and my colleagues Derek Kinner and Rick Wilson breached the barriers of windshields and ”Will Work for Food” signs to get closer to the people being targeted by the proposed laws.
We mingled with them at soup kitchens and shelters. We listened to their stories over Styrofoam plates of Hamburger Helper, and amid midnight temperatures in the 30s on Jacksonville Beach.

And we encountered more than just Tennessees.
We met George Cotton. He slept in the woods around San Marco, made daily rounds at Dumpsters, dreamed of being a NASCAR driver, and paid for his food and libations by selling other people’s throwaways. We met John Reynolds. He did day labor, but his meager earnings and alcoholism didn’t leave much for rent. Like a hermit crab, he holed up in a concrete drainage pipe on Jacksonville Beach with his girlfriend, Patricia. We met ”Cowboy,” a science-fiction aficionado who said he chose to live outdoors.

We met people whose dreams had been beaten out of them by bad life decisions, bad habits and bad relationships, but who, in spite of it all, still clung to the one thing that required no job, no cash, no pass to access.


Most of the homeless people we met who chose to live outside had mental disabilities. Many had alcohol and drug problems. Some had both. But others were simply too proud to let go of their freedom – the last thing that they had a say over in their lives.

”This country,” says James Ratliff Jr., a homeless man who camps out near the old health department in Historic Springfield, ”belongs to the people, not to the government.”

It is that conviction that leads some of them to coop with rats beneath overpasses. To bed down in crawl spaces. To commandeer concrete drainage pipes. To build camps with the castoffs of new subdivisions. Bury their belongings near clumps of sea oats on the beach.

I think they should go inside if they can. At the least, a shelter would put them closer to the services that they need to rebuild their lives.

But a shelter isn’t home. And as long as there is not enough affordable housing or housing to help homeless people manage the problems that keep them homeless, then it seems hypocritical to jail them for in effect saying, ”Thanks, but no thanks.”

Jail could also worsen the problem. It could expose taxpayers to liability if an inundation of people with mental and emotional disabilities stretches too thin the jail’s resources for dealing with them. Taxpayers could also be deluded into thinking that because they see fewer homeless people hanging out, the problem has been solved. When in reality, it has just been tucked in for the night.

Which is why I believe more time should be spent targeting the problem. Not the people.

To begin to eliminate homelessness, citizens could push for a strong public policy commitment to help homeless people find homes, not just shelter. More efforts could go into finding and creating more housing – throughout Jacksonville’s 850 square miles – to help people manage their emotional pain and disabilities so that they can live in a community again.

As for the Tennessees of the world, there are no easy answers. But I offer this suggestion purely from observation, both at Jacksonville Beach and in my neighborhood, historic Springfield: Give hardened homeless people roles as contributors to the community, instead of forever castigating them as detractors.

The homeless people who ate at The Mission House, the Beaches soup kitchen, readily volunteered to clean up afterward. So maybe if they are sleeping on the beach at night, enlisting them to help keep the beach clean might make them feel like part of a community again. That could be a first step toward luring some die-hard homeless people off the streets.

Instead of being incensed at people for sleeping outside, we ought to be more incensed about the conditions that conspire to keep them there. And the energy being wasted on how to make an arrest instead of how to make a difference.

Tonyaa Weathersbee’s columns run Mondays on the Times-Union’s opinion page and Wednesdays in the community news sections. She can be reached on the phone at (904) 359-4251 or by fax at 359-4478. Her e-mail address is tjean@jax-inter.net

One thought on “Florida discusses anti-homeless laws

  1. I ‘m beyond concerned about the homeless. I’m affraid for them. And talking about a situation is good it’s the beginning of fixing the issue. Now what do we do? More has to be done to make sure they are ok. The homeless are not nothing they are apart of us. If they are thrown away today, who will thrown away tomorrow. Signed we should stick together.

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