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Clearwater supports tougher laws against homeless

CLEARWATER — The City Council gave full support Thursday night to a flurry of new laws strengthening the city's homeless crackdown.

The new bans, including sidewalk sitting and outdoor sleeping, would be punishable by up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. Enforcement training for police officers will begin next week, and the council is expected to give the bans final approval at a meeting early next month.

City officials call the new bans a weapon of "last resort" for police working to clean city streets, allowing officers to move the homeless into shelters or social service.

"There's no intent," Assistant City Attorney Rob Surette said, "to fill the jails with individuals violating these ordinances."

But homeless advocates say such "act of living" laws punish the poor and put further pressure on courts and jails.

"We should not allow people with economic status and social power to support laws against our fellow citizens," resident Felix Del Valle said. "When people are asked to enforce laws such as this, it becomes a nightmare for those who cannot defend themselves."

Perhaps the most extreme of the new laws would ban sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and rights of way on Clearwater Beach, downtown and in the nearby East Gateway neighborhood, home to most of the city's social services. Sitting and lying on rights of way, the ordinance states, "threatens public safety" and "can lead to a spiral of deterioration and blight."

Sitting at parks, on the beach sand or outside cafes would remain legal. So would sitting in a wheelchair, a baby carriage or a public bench. Sitting during a medical emergency would be allowed, but sitting protesters could still face arrest if they don't show "signs or literature explaining the protest."

Panhandling, bathing in public fountains and sleeping outdoors will be banned and could lead to jail time.

People found "lodging out-of-doors," as the ordinance states, would be moved to a shelter or arrested, and nearby personal belongings would either be taken to the shelter, stored at police headquarters or, if deemed unclean or "of no apparent utility," immediately trashed.

Some residents cheered the bans, saying the city's swelling homeless had inundated downtown and led to awkward explanations with friends and family.

The city's sitting ban was based on similar laws in St. Petersburg, Phoenix and Seattle, and its public sleeping ban echoed laws in Orlando, Sarasota and Portland, Ore. Though several of those cities have faced constitutional challenges, Surette said the city's bans were legally airtight.

The proposed bans are the newest measures of the city's homeless crackdown, which began earlier this year when city leaders discussed discouraging donations to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen. Last month, the city welded shut park restrooms and turned off public water and power at parks frequented by the homeless.

Officials have been guided by Robert Marbut, a consultant and founder of a Texas homeless compound, whom the city has paid $25,000 for "action steps" on homeless policy.

In May, Marbut said the city's "history of enablement" was the source of the city's swelling homeless. Expanding arrest authority and slashing "urban enablers" like open bathrooms and "renegade" street feedings, he said, would persuade the homeless to seek out services and leave the streets.

Little of the homeless initiative has focused on shelter space, which advocates say the city needs. Over objections from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, city leaders have steered the homeless to Safe Harbor, the shelter next to the county jail. But that shelter is often at capacity, and it doesn't accept families.

The city's spending on social services for the poor and homeless has plummeted in recent years, partially due to the loss of the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, closed last year after the city ended its funding. City officials have discussed increasing funding to Safe Harbor but have fought efforts to reopen the CHIP shelter.

Clearwater contributes to Safe Harbor's population more than any other city. Nearly 450 people who stayed at the shelter in May said they had come from Clearwater — about as many as St. Petersburg and Largo combined.

Clearwater supports tougher laws against homeless 07/19/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 12:33am]
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