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Homeless sue St. Petersburg, claim abuse of constitutional rights

ST. PETERSBURG — Six homeless people backed by a handful of advocacy organizations filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the city this week that challenges the constitutionality of a series of ordinances that target homeless people.

The city has passed six ordinances that restrict some behaviors associated with street homelessness in recent years, including measures that limit where and when the homeless can sleep and the amount of personal belongings they can keep by their side.

"What has been happening in St. Petersburg over the past couple years is one of the worst examples nationally of widespread abuse of homeless persons' civil and human rights," said Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights director for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, one of three organizations representing the city's homeless. The Southern Legal Counsel and Florida Institutional Legal Services have also sided with the homeless.

The lawsuit, filed in Tampa, claims the city's ordinances violate various constitutional protections, including freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, freedom from unreasonable searches and free speech.

Ozdeger said the ordinances also fail to provide sufficient guidance for police officers, which encourages arbitrary enforcement.

"We feel that we have a very strong case," she said.

Advocates hope a judge will grant an injunction against enforcement of the ordinances and declare them unconstitutional.

Responding to complaints about public urination and sidewalks crowded with dirty blankets and clothes, Mayor Rick Baker and the City Council rallied for tough restrictions against the homeless in recent years. The city's legal department vetoed some suggestions, deeming them unconstitutional.

The ordinances that were passed were carefully crafted and should hold up in court, said Mark Winn, the city's chief assistant attorney.

"We are not surprised by any of the allegations in there," he said of the lawsuit.

The 63-page complaint is the latest example of the sometimes difficult relationship the city has had with its homeless. The city gained nationwide scorn in 2007 after police slashed homeless people's tents, and advocates have staged protests downtown.

The lawsuit claims the city regularly searches the homeless without probable cause and makes arrests for public urination though the homeless have nowhere to use the bathroom. Their belongings have been snatched from city parks and public areas without adequate notice and without information how to retrieve them. The homeless also have been ordered to move, under threat of arrest, from public places where they are lawfully allowed to be, according to the lawsuit.

The named plaintiffs are Anthony Catron, Charles Hargis, Michael Lile, Ferdinand Lupperger, Jo Anne Reynolds and William Shumate, a popular homeless leader in downtown St. Petersburg.

At Williams Park on Thursday night, patches of homeless people reclined in the public square. Told of the lawsuit, they expressed hope life on the street would get easier.

"I ain't never been nowhere like this, with the rules and regulations," said Nygee Shabazz, 50, a drifter who's been in St. Petersburg about 15 years. "We are pawns. We are nobody."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

Homeless sue St. Petersburg, claim abuse of constitutional rights 05/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 1:19pm]

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