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Florida could adopt new solution to homeless crisis: Camps

The unusual idea running through Tallahassee has the support of a key homeless advocate — and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
 
San Diego city leaders and Mayor Todd Gloria unveil the city's newest Safe Sleeping site at a parking lot in Balboa Park on Oct. 20, 2023. The new site will have 400 tents that can accommodate up to two per tent. Florida legislators are exploring the possibility of camps for homeless people.
San Diego city leaders and Mayor Todd Gloria unveil the city's newest Safe Sleeping site at a parking lot in Balboa Park on Oct. 20, 2023. The new site will have 400 tents that can accommodate up to two per tent. Florida legislators are exploring the possibility of camps for homeless people. [ NELVIN C. CEPEDA | The San Diego Union-Tribune ]
Published Feb. 5|Updated Feb. 6

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday endorsed a statewide strategy for dealing with homeless people that Republican lawmakers say is the first of its kind.

In short, put them in camps.

Legislators in the last week advanced bills that would require counties to ban homeless people from sleeping in public places and instead allow them to stay in designated camps with security, sanitation and access to behavioral health services.

Although the governor said the legislation is still a “work in progress,” he endorsed its goal of moving homeless people off the streets. He also said he was open to assigning money to help local governments treat and house them.

“We feel that if the Legislature is willing to lean in on this, that we want to be there to be able to offer support, but it’s got to be done right,” DeSantis said during a Monday news conference in Miami Beach.

“It’s got to be done in ways that is focused primarily on ensuring public order, ensuring quality of life for residents, ensuring that people’s property values are maintained,” he added.

The idea has divided lawmakers and homeless advocates alike.

To Democratic lawmakers and most homeless advocates, it’s a clumsy and mean-spirited one-size-fits-all approach that will lead to more arrests of homeless people. It could also run counter to federal best practices, which encourage moving them into transitional or permanent housing.

The legislation has the backing of a Texas think tank that favors tent cities over permanent housing, which opponents consider another red flag.

The legislation also has the support of Ron Book, the longtime chairperson of the board of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, widely praised for its success in eliminating homelessness.

Book, who is a powerful Tallahassee lobbyist, acknowledges the idea is not perfect. Tent cities don’t work, he said, and Miami-Dade County will never do mass encampments.

He thinks the legislation is a good start and has an influential figure in the Legislature sponsoring it: Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, who is set to become speaker of the Florida House in 2026.

“You have leadership tackling the issue of homelessness. We haven’t had that before,” Book said.

He acknowledged that he’s heard from advocates who strongly disagree with the proposal.

Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Tamarac, condemned the idea during a Senate committee meeting. Osgood, once a homeless young mother struggling with addiction, said the bill would have caused her to worry about being arrested and separated from her children for simply taking a nap somewhere.

“I just keep thinking about being out there with my babies,” she said.

“The Florida model”

House Bill 1365 and Senate Bill 1530 would prohibit local governments from allowing sleeping or camping on most public-owned land or property where the public has access rights.

However, counties and municipalities could designate some land — in a location that does not “adversely and materially” affect nearby residential or commercial properties — for camping and sleeping.

The legislation would allow local governments to be sued — and be liable for any legal fees — if they fail to comply with the law.

Dubbed “the Florida model,” the idea is intended to get local governments to help homeless people while clearing them out of public spaces, Garrison told a House committee last month.

“We are not going to allow the public space that we all enjoy, that is essential for a thriving community, to be lost,” Garrison said. “We’re just not going to do it.”

The Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, called it a “cutting edge” solution to the growing homeless population.

A lack of affordable housing has caused more and more Americans to sleep in public parks, campgrounds or their cars. Some stay with family and friends or, if they can afford it, motels. School districts and colleges are reporting thousands of homeless students.

Last year, Florida’s Council on Homelessness reported 30,809 people experiencing homelessness, up 9% from 2019. Of those, 15,706 were sleeping outdoors, in cars or in abandoned buildings, more than double the number from 2021. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties reported 4,144 people homeless last year, down about 300 since 2018.

Tampa Bay coalitions and nonprofits, funded by federal and local sources, employ a range of strategies to address homelessness, from buying and refurbishing shelters to helping homeless people defeat addiction.

In the face of increasing homelessness, however, some local governments around the state have struggled to come up with solutions. Several have banned panhandling. West Palm Beach blasted annoying songs such as “Baby Shark” to keep people from sleeping in its waterfront park.

Miami Beach last year allowed homeless people to be arrested if they declined to go to a shelter, a strategy DeSantis lauded Monday. Miami Beach police arrested 20 people under the ordinance late last year, most of whom were sleeping on the beach, according to police reports.

Garrison said his legislation targets chronically homeless people, who often are mentally ill, are suffering from substance abuse or who can’t be persuaded to move into housing. He said his legislation could change as he talks to people, but the current status quo of letting people sleep anywhere outside is “inhumane.”

“I’m open to any number of ideas, as long as the status quo is not an option,” he said.

One of the supporters of the legislation is the Cicero Institute, a think tank created by the Austin, Texas-based venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, who supported DeSantis’ failed presidential campaign.

The institute believes that the federal strategy on homelessness — to eliminate it by eventually getting them to live in permanent housing — is a failure. Building housing supports “cronyism,” its website states. It has pushed other states to criminalize homelessness but has also supported efforts to make it easier to build affordable housing.

“The public is not willing to deal with the status quo on homelessness anymore,” said Bryan Sunderland, who leads the institute’s government efforts. “Let’s get people off the streets and get them the help they need.”

Garrison and Sunderland said the idea for the legislation came from Garrison. Some lawmakers have cited their association with the think tank as a reason to vote against the legislation, however. The organization is registered to lobby for the bill.

“This is drafted from probably a think tank somewhere as a good idea, for people who have never experienced homelessness, who don’t live here,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, before voting against the bill last month.

Questions and alternate strategies

The legislation has also run up against practical concerns, such as how such tent communities could be kept safe and how homeless people could be forced into them.

The legislation isn’t tied to any additional funding, although the House’s proposed budget includes $20 million for additional homeless services.

Most notably, creating tent encampments runs counter to the federal “housing first” approach, which focuses on eliminating homelessness by identifying more places for people to stay. Unlike past strategies, it doesn’t require recipients with substance abuse disorders to become sober before being housed.

Garrison’s proposal would require those in tent sites to abstain from drugs and alcohol.

That strategy has been successful, particularly in Miami-Dade County, long considered the state’s model for how to eliminate homelessness. In 1992, it created the nation’s first dedicated funding source for homeless services in the form of a 1% food and beverage tax.

The county’s Homeless Trust has bought an assisted living facility to house homeless seniors, and it sends outreach workers into the community to give medications to those who haven’t yet moved into housing.

Since the early 1990s, the county has gone from more than 8,000 homeless people to less than 1,000 in Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust’s most recent count, from August last year. (Garrison said the county has done an “amazing job.”)

Legislation that could upend a community’s current homeless strategies is concerning, said Annie Lord, executive director of Miami Homes for All, which works to create and preserve affordable housing.

“It just could have a lot of potentially unintended consequences,” Lord said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the type of building purchased by the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.