More cities prosecuting the homeless for living outside

by Ciera Horton
Posted 6/03/16, 05:00 pm

As more cities try to regulate the conduct of homeless people, more homeless people and their legal advocates are fighting back—and a lawsuit in Sarasota, Fla., illuminates the battle.  

Sarasota has one homeless shelter run by the Salvation Army. Just before dawn last August, a Sarasota police officer roused David Cross, a homeless man sleeping outside the library. The officer issued Cross an infraction for sleeping outdoors, even though the shelter was full; A Sarasota ordinance prohibits “out-of-doors lodging.”

Cross did what many homeless people are now doing: he sued the city, claiming the regulations strip his right to survive. City ordinances across the country are targeting homeless populations, making it illegal to panhandle, distribute food, and sleep or sit outside. Officials say the ordinances help reduce crime, health issues, and nuisances for residents and business owners.

Estimates of the number of homeless people in Sarasota County vary, with many hovering around 1,400. The Salvation Army shelter, zoned for 260 beds, is often full at 3 p.m. It primarily serves participants in recovery programs. Other nonprofits offer daytime services such as bathroom facilities and laundry, but people without a place to sleep turn to the streets.

The American Civil Liberties Union says Florida tourists don’t want to see the reality of homelessness, and argues that if individuals get help many will “get out of the cycle of homelessness.” Sarasota Police Capt. Kevin Stiff told me many homeless individuals refuse the opportunities available to them.  

In 2012, police arrested a homeless man in Sarasota for “theft of utilities” after he charged his phone in a city park outlet. Later that year, the ACLU obtained messages between Sarasota law enforcement officers calling themselves “bum hunters.”

“It was an issue because of the complaints we got from citizens about people sleeping, and doing other things in their doorways, and panhandling, and being aggressive in begging for money,” Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino told PBS. “And people sometimes are just scared by homeless … so we get a lot of complaints.”

The lawsuit David Cross (with ACLU help) has brought claims the city prosecuted nearly 900 homeless people between 2013 and 2014 on the basis of lodging ordinances and trespassing laws. The Sarasota mayor or city manager did not return calls requesting comment. Cross hopes the city will build a downtown emergency shelter for people in need. “It’s not illegal to be homeless,” he told The Washington Post.

One hundred cities banned sitting or lying down in public by 2014, according to a National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty report. That represents a 43 percent increase in three years. Cities are cracking down on homeless people sleeping in vehicles or on park benches. Some trashcans now have locking mechanisms to prevent rummaging.

The Chicago Tribune reported last year that the city has 6,000 homeless people who are now allowed only to carry two coats, two pairs of shoes, one sleeping bag, and no boxes, carts, plants, or an array of other items. A homeless man sued the city in March after sanitation crews threw out all his personal belongings, including medication and identification documents. 

Last year, the Obama administration took notice of the rising issue when a Boise, Idaho, lawsuit challenged the city’s anti-camping regulation. The Justice Department said it is unconstitutional for police to punish homeless people for sleeping outside when there is inadequate shelter.

“I don’t blame business owners for trying to solve problems that impact their livelihoods,” said John Ashmen, president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, the largest Christian network of crisis shelters. “But cities should find more ways to provide for the needs of homeless people before they enact laws to prohibit their presence. “

Ciera Horton

Ciera Horton is a WORLD intern.

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  • ERDoc
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:32 pm

    Speaking from daily experience with this population, their homelessness often is a result of alcohol and drug abuse, psychiatric illness, and frequently, personal choice.  I rarely interact with a "homeless"  person as the Feds would define them and find that their situation is not primarily one of personal choice rather than circumstances.  There are often a plethora of public agencies willing to assist and a legion of case managers to be assigned to their person but they refuse often for recreational purposes.  I believe there is a PhD thesis waiting to be written on the migration of the "homeless" for I see "regulars" who somehow travel thousands of miles with no money.  Its amazing.  I sympathize with the cities and the business owners.  To have them sleeping , defecating and lying drunk in parks and on sidewalks, and panhandling on street corners is a significant business and taxpayer concern.  It should not be ignored to accommodate people who frequently refuse help for their behavior.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:32 pm

    Oh yes, and remind me not to visit any city where I can't sit down in public. Or charge up my phone a at a public outlet, apparently...

  • VT
    Posted: Tue, 01/03/2017 05:05 pm

    *sits in public* (oficer) "Get up, I'm charging you for sitting and charging your phone"

  • Laura W
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:32 pm

    Yikes. I might find myself on the same side as the ACLU, for once. Sounds like the cities are just hoping that homeless people will move along and sleep on a different city's streets. But seriously, if someone is homeless in one of those cities, and they didn't make it to the shelter before it filled up, is it illegal for them to sleep that night? What, exactly, would the police like that person to do?

  •  cimach's picture
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:32 pm

    Anyone been to San Francisco lately?  The place has almost been taken over by the homeless, making it a very scary place to visit.