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Clearwater leaders give early support to sidewalk-sitting ban, other restrictions on homeless

CLEARWATER — This city's proposed ban on public sitting across large swaths of the community landed with a thud over the weekend, drawing slams from residents who said the move was too heavy-handed toward the homeless.

But one group seemed unmoved: the City Council. At a Monday work session, council members expressed support for the ordinance, one of several new proposals aimed at toughening the city's handling of its homeless population.

"Great ordinance. Well written," council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito said. "What about the rest of the city?"

If approved next month, the ban would outlaw sitting or lying down on sidewalks and other public rights of way at Clearwater Beach, downtown and in the East Gateway neighborhood east of downtown.

Sitting down in parks or on the beach sands, in a wheelchair or on a public bench, at a parade or at a protest would remain legal, along with a few other exceptions.

However, sitters violating the ban who resisted requests to move or who repeated their offense could face up to a $500 fine, 60 days in jail or both, the ordinance states. Other proposed bans on street soliciting, sleeping outdoors and bathing at public faucets could also become punishable by arrest.

The city also recently welded shut the doors to some park restrooms.

City leaders say the proposed laws, encouraged by homelessness consultant Robert Marbut, are not intended to put more homeless people in jail. They say anyone who moved or was reasonable with officers could avoid arrest.

Instead, the proposals would give police more power to keep resistant transients in line or lock them up, officials said.

Assistant City Attorney Rob Surette, the police legal adviser who wrote the ordinances, said the law was crafted to withstand legal challenges and that similar sitting bans in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle had "withstood constitutional attack."

Another proposed ban on "lodging out-of-doors," similar to a law passed in Denver last month, could subject the sleeping homeless to arrest. Personal belongings deemed unsanitary or useless would be thrown away.

Andy Beres, spokesman for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said Tuesday that the agency is watching Clearwater's actions closely and hinted at a "pandemic" of similar laws targeting homelessness nationwide.

Leaders in St. Petersburg, which has passed similar bans on sitting and panhandling since 2010, say the crackdown worked, steering the homeless to Safe Harbor, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office shelter next to the county jail in mid Pinellas. But that shelter, like most others in the county, is nearly full, and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has argued against Clearwater's initiative to push its homeless people outside the city limits. St. Petersburg advocates for the homeless also suggest the bans can push the homeless into hiding, away from shelter and services.

Across the bay in Hillsborough County, a group seeking to reduce the county's population of chronically homeless people has suggested an approach known as "housing first." That approach provides a place to live — not in a shelter — with regular help and support by a caseworker.

Some homeless advocates argue that Clearwater's proposals would punish homeless people for trying to survive. Some have called for protest, saying the bans could lead to infringement of constitutional rights on public land.

That could set up a City Hall showdown between city officials and critics at 6 p.m. Thursday, the first meeting where the public can speak about the proposed ordinances. The City Council must approve the ordinances at two separate meetings for them to become law.

"What a wonderful idea to complicate law enforcement, clog our courts and jails … (and) inflict even more suffering on the downtrodden," Clearwater resident John Genaro wrote in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times. "As long as we are micro-managing," he added, why not "prohibit the homeless from even walking on public property?"

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater leaders give early support to sidewalk-sitting ban, other restrictions on homeless 07/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 9:57pm]
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