A federal judge's ruling this week provides some welcome clarity for St. Petersburg city officials coping with chronic homelessness on downtown streets. Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council can be more confident they are on the right track as they deal with a persistent issue with no easy solutions.
U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday dismissed nine claims by six homeless plaintiffs and denied them class-action status. The city can arrest people for sleeping during the day in public rights of way downtown, and for keeping personal property on public land. It can also ban people from city property who previously committed crimes there. Those are reasonable restrictions that balance the rights of the homeless with the rights of other residents to move unimpeded and enjoy public spaces.
Left for another day were two other claims by the plaintiffs, which unfortunately prompted City Attorney John Wolf to advise city leaders to avoid discussing homelessness even generally. Those claims concern the city's ban on public urination when no public facilities are available, and police demanding identification or searching belongings under the threat of arrest.
Those issues ought to be easily resolved. Foster in December suggested building bathrooms at St. Vincent de Paul in downtown St. Petersburg. Now he says the idea is "off the table" due to the litigation, but the city should go ahead and address the issue now.
The homeless should not be threatened with arrest if they don't identify themselves to police or don't consent to a search. Generally, the courts have ruled that police may only demand identification if they suspect a crime has been committed. The homeless have no fewer rights than the rest of the public.
St. Petersburg has made progress on addressing homelessness since 2007, when police officers slashed homeless tents, drawing condemnation from across the nation. The city helped lead the establishment of Pinellas Hope, the midcounty homeless facility. While the work is far from done, the judge's rulings offer some sound guidance.