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DeLand considering ordinances targeting homelessness

Keith Chapman pointing at the location where an event to relieve the homeless will take place.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
New West Orlando's Keith Chapman stands outside the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida shelter on North Terry Avenue on Sunday, July 23, 2023. Behind him is a tent neighborhood built by dozens of transient people who used to live there before a new city ordinance in Orlando took effect earlier this year. The ordinance is similar to those adopted recently by other municipalities in Central Florida and to the ones being considered by the DeLand City Council.

Another Central Florida city might adopt ordinances targeting homelessness.

In Volusia County, the DeLand City Council will be holding second readings Monday on three separate items — to ban sleeping and camping on public land and benches, to ban sitting, laying, or blocking sidewalks, and to ban storage of personal property on public grounds.

The move comes as state legislation is making its way through the Florida House, proposing to ban sleeping or camping on public grounds without a permit, as several other cities have also adopted nearly identical ordinances, such as Orlando and Altamonte Springs.

However, DeLand Community Information Manager Chris Graham said the city has been prioritizing solutions to homelessness for years.

“Homelessness has been an issue that our management has really focused on for several years. And really, it's one of our key key tenants, with our strategic plan and with our mission statement, in that we help people,” Graham said.

DeLand is working with local shelters and organizations for an approach that the cities said would ideally connect people experiencing homelessness to emergency, housing, and recovery services, much like Altamonte Springs.

According to Graham, law enforcement would ask transient people if they have somewhere to go. If they do not, officers are to offer assistance relocating and connecting them to organizations. The city has made arrangements with The Bridge and First Step Shelter to take these residents in.

If the person refuses the help, however, Graham said an arrest could be made. According to the city’s Code of Ordinance, violators could face up to 60 days jail, $500 in fines, or both.

Graham said the impetus for the city’s actions is not in filling up jail cells. Instead, the hope is that people will take advantage of the offer for shelter and resources -- the city is looking for funding to implement a new mental health program via the criminal justice system.

According to Graham, the city knows that criminalizing homelessness is not a solution.

“Our goal is not to take them to jail, our goal is to get them to those resources that they have available to them. In fact, we're working right now with the State Attorney's Office, with one of our mental health health care organizations within the county, to come up with a pilot program that would give mental health counseling services to those who are actually arrested,” Graham said. “It's really a multi-pronged approach coming out of a place of compassion.”

To follow the “spirit” of the law, he said, in 2020, the city partnered with local churches and nonprofits to bridge people experiencing homelessness to housing. In 2023, the city launched Spare Change for Real Change, in partnership with The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia.

Among other services, The Neighborhood Center provides emergency beds for people, a cold weather shelter, and daily meals, as well as housing initiatives and homelessness prevention programs. Graham said it has been hailed as a model for the city.

With the partnership program, Graham said money that would normally go to panhandling would be diverted into the hands of organizations that have the tools to help.

“We want people to have housing. We want them to be able to be off the streets,” he said.

The city’s motivation for these ordinances is “maintaining a safe community” and a “proliferation of folks” occupying sidewalks, primarily in the city’s downtown area.

Last month, a man was arrested for the death of a homeless man in DeLand, being accused of shooting the man before stuffing his body in the trunk of his car. And a man charged for stabbing a woman while she was sleeping on a bench in 2019 went on trial earlier this week.

“People shouldn't have to live in homelessness, they shouldn't have to be homeless, they shouldn't have to deal with all these harsh conditions, they shouldn't be subjected to possible violence,” Graham said is DeLand's focus.

Graham said that while law enforcement is trained to and expected to approach the situation with compassion, the process of attempting to relocate people itself is not codified.

The City Council’s second reading for these ordinances is Monday at 7 p.m.

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member. 

Lillian (Lilly) Hernández Caraballo is a bilingual, multimedia journalist covering housing and homelessness for Central Florida Public Media, as a Report for America corps member.
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