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Moving forward: Organizations react to DeLand’s new ordinances targeting homelessness

Homeless encampments.
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Homeless encampments.

Local organizations in Volusia County have been recruited to help the city of DeLand take a concerted approach to a rise in homelessness.

The DeLand City Council adopted three new ordinances Monday targeting the issue, voting to ban camping on public grounds, sleeping on public sidewalks and benches, and storing personal property on public land.

However, city officials have said the aim is not to fill up jails but to guide unhoused people to resources, and they have sought out the help of local shelters, such as First Step Shelter on the east side of the county, to get this to work.

Established in 2019, just months before the pandemic hit, First Step Shelter was founded as not just a temporary meal and bed relief option but with the intent of bridging people experiencing homelessness back into permanent housing.

Executive Director Victoria Fahlberg said the shelter has partnered with six cities that help fund their efforts, DeLand will be their seventh.

As the shelter finalizes preparations and guidelines with the city, Fahlberg said she agreed to help because the approach mimics Miami’s Pottinger Agreement, which was born as the result of a lawsuit in 1998 and states police cannot criminalize homelessness without a cause.

Intended results

Fahlberg said it works as a jail diversion program.

“It’s usually a minor ordinance violation, like sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a business, or urinating in public or being in the park after dark, any of those kinds of things. Instead of taking them to jail, the officers can bring them up and have them in our safe zone,” Fahlberg said.

Community Information Manager Chris Graham said an individual would have to refuse help or relocation for an arrest to be made, but if a viable, alternative location is not an option for a willing individual, officers, would not make an arrest.

"If there are no beds available, then the camping ordinance would not be enforceable as it would not be Pottinger compliant," Graham said. "Though we have been assured that space would be available."

Fahlberg said First Step’s Safe Zone usually has plenty of space -- it’s open 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday, and it's only for the purpose of giving law enforcement an alternative place for people who need a place to stay at that time. Once in the Safe Zone, people are provided a meal and a bed, where they can rest without fear of being arrested or unsafe.

Fahlberg said it helps prevent criminalizing people just for existing, and she fully supports the city’s move because the approach works.

“It's actually been pretty successful so far,” she said. “If all they wanted to do was just criminalize people and put them in jail, they wouldn't even want to have a partnership with us.”

Potential setbacks

Other advocates for people experiencing homelessness, such as Martha Are, CEO of the Homeless Service Network of Central Florida, Safe Zones aren’t always safe and present a “challenging mix” of people, as it groups people of all ages, genders, needs, and experiences in one place.

Are also said most unhoused people like to stay close to their own neighborhoods, families, and their jobs.

These types of ordinances, which have been passed recently in other municipalities, such as Orlando and Altamonte Springs, could end up taking unhoused people far from their preferred locations, further delaying their progress.

She said this might complicate further if the state passes legislation with similar restrictions.

“Approved encampments would end up placing people with mental illnesses and people with substance use issues in the same places — our burgeoning senior homeless population, as well as women and children — and that's a challenging mix to provide quality services to,” Are said.

“The restrictions on locations for these proposed places would also make siting them very difficult and more likely to result in locations that are in areas without public transportation and more isolated, which will have consequences as well for people's ability to reintegrate back into stable housing.”

Other resources

At First Step Shelter, Fahlberg said, people are offered the option of joining the organization’s long term housing program. In a congregated space, people share bunk beds and living space, 60 beds for men, 30 for women, and follow a program that has helped over half the residents become housed again.

Anyone willing to join this program can have more than just an overnight bed. The program does demand compliance of certain rules, she said, so not everyone accepts.

“You have to stop drinking, or you have to stop doing drugs. If you have a severe mental illness, you need to get on medication, so that you can begin to have a more productive life. And then you can go into housing and you can stay there. You can live independently in housing. So that's what our whole focus is, and we do everything possible here to enable that,” Fahlberg said.

Fahlberg refused to make First Step into a typical shelter because the approach doesn't solve homelessness. The idea was a point of contention, as she said, no one wanted tax dollars to go to “those undeserving people,” which got the shelter off to a rocky start.

Now, the Board of Directors includes officials from each partner city, and she is happy to see their work grow and be sought out by more municipalities because that support is helping house people and giving them another chance.

“Those people have made some great changes in their lives. And they're wonderful people. At this point, we've had an opportunity to really show our community that people's lives can change, and that they can do better,” Falhberg said.

First Step Homeless Shelter in Daytona Beach.
Google Maps
Google Maps
First Step Homeless Shelter in Daytona Beach.

DeLand has not yet finalized the process to become a partner of First Step Shelter, but Fahlberg said the process is underway.

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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