Monday, April 23, 2018
News Roundup

Clearwater poised to institute more laws that target the homeless

CLEARWATER — This city could soon outlaw a harrowing crime: sitting.

Sitting or lying down on sidewalks or other public rights of way on Clearwater Beach, downtown or in the East Gateway neighborhood could mean a $500 fine, 60 days in jail or both.

The sitting ban is among a flurry of new ordinances the City Council will consider Monday as part of its crackdown on homeless people.

The council also could drop the hammer on sleeping outside, panhandling and bathing in public sinks. Like public sitting, each crime would be an arrestable offense.

The sitting ban is one of the most extreme proposals in a city already known for welding shut public bathrooms, turning off access to water in public areas and discouraging donations to a long-running soup kitchen.

But city leaders say the proposed ordinances, similar to bans enforced in St. Petersburg, San Francisco and Seattle, will give police more authority to clean up areas known for attracting the down-and-out.

"We do have challenges on the street, and the public wants us to respond to those in a humane way," City Manager Bill Horne said. "Our residents support us having a little more influence and teeth in our rules."

City Council members will discuss the proposed ordinances during the Monday work session and could take the first votes on them at their regular meeting Thursday. If approved, the proposals could become law as early as next month.

The ban on sitting and lying down would cover all the public rights of way — including sidewalks, boardwalks, piers, docks and the paths in and out of public buildings — on the beach, downtown or in the East Gateway neighborhood east of downtown. Resisting a request to move could result in an arrest.

There are exceptions. People could still sit in parks, on the sand of Clearwater beaches, at sidewalk cafes and while watching parades. They could sit on the rights of way if in wheelchairs, baby carriages or on public benches.

People who were having a medical emergency wouldn't be arrested for sitting or lying down in the midst of those emergencies.

And protesters legally could sit or lie down, but only if they had in their possession "signs or literature explaining the protest."

So why outlaw sitting? That proposed ordinance, written by assistant city attorney Rob Surette, states that sitting on the rights of way "threatens public safety," hurts businesses and "can lead to a spiral of deterioration and blight."

The sitting ban would last from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. A different ban on sleeping outside in tents, bed rolls or on newspapers or cardboard would cover the nighttime hours.

A homeless person found "lodging out-of-doors" would be moved to a shelter if space was open. (Three strikes, though, could lead to an arrest.) The personal belongings of those who were moved would be taken to the shelter or stored at the Clearwater Police Department for 60 days. Items deemed unsanitary or "of no apparent utility" would be trashed.

Another ordinance the City Council will consider Monday would make an entire list of minor parks offenses punishable by a fine of up to $500, up to 60 days in jail, or both. That would include feeding wild animals like ducks or squirrels, tying a dog to a tree, playing horseshoes outside a designated area or sitting on "any structure not intended for such use."

Another proposed ordinance would tighten the city's current ban on panhandling, or soliciting near roads and parking lots. It would add more banned areas and replace the current punishment, a fine, with arrest. St. Petersburg passed a panhandling ban in 2010; Tampa followed in October.

Clearwater's panhandling ordinance would affect those seeking "immediate donations," including for charity, religious or educational purposes. Groups wishing to avoid arrest, like firefighter boot-drive charities or newspapers, would have to give the police detailed plans and proof of $1 million in insurance coverage two weeks in advance.

The city's homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut, pushed for a similar crackdown in St. Petersburg that thinned the numbers of visible homeless downtown. Homeless advocates argued those laws merely pushed the poor into hiding.

Legal challenges and intense criticism have followed passage of such "acts of living" laws, which federal experts with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness say "punish people who currently live on the street and do nothing to reduce the factors contributing to homelessness."

In a March report, that agency said laws like the sitting ban "further marginalize men and women who are experiencing homelessness, fuel inflammatory attitudes and may even unduly restrict constitutionally protected liberties."

They also can be pricey for a city to enforce, as they create a "costly revolving door" spinning the homeless "from the street to the criminal justice system and back," according to the report.

That's a concern for Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who said Clearwater's crackdown could further drive up the jail population and swell the number of residents at Safe Harbor, the Sheriff Office's jail-diversion shelter.

Used judiciously, Gualtieri said, the ordinances could give officers the upper hand in getting the homeless to safety. "But it becomes problematic," he said, "if it becomes, 'Charge 'em and throw 'em in jail, charge 'em and throw 'em in jail.' "

Though advocates suggest the city's crackdown is meant to sweep out the homeless in advance of the Republican National Convention, City Manager Horne said arresting more people is not the city's intent.

"We're not going to be abusing anybody," he said. "I honestly believe we're doing the right thing."

Public defender Bob Dillinger doesn't agree. These "overreacting" laws, he said, represent a "classic criminalization of homelessness … the most expensive way to address homeless issues and the least effective."

Florida law mandates that the city must make arrangements for lawyers to represent those arrested on ordinance violations. St. Petersburg pays the public defender's office $50 a week to handle its arrests.

"You solve the problem by offering shelter and services," Dillinger said. "You don't solve the homeless problem by arresting people."

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters, or you may mail letters to 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756.

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