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Advocates push back on ‘dehumanizing’ regulations targeting homelessness

A man sits cross-legged on the sidewalk under the I-4 overpass at the corner of Amelia and Garland in downtown Orlando during the day.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
A man experiencing homelessness sits on the sidewalk under the I-4 overpass at the corner of Amelia and Garland in downtown Orlando in the afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. Behind him, another man experiencing homelessness is lying on the sidewalk, seemingly trying to keep warm. Their actions are now in violation of Orlando's city ordinance 2023-55.

Leaders on local, state, and federal levels have been discussing regulations against homelessness, but not without pushback from advocates.

The shift in legislative priorities follows a growing housing crisis. While homelessness in Florida is down from where it was nearly 15 years ago, a steep spike is emerging since 2019. The Homeless Services Network of Central Florida reports that in Seminole, Osceola and Orange counties alone the number of people experiencing homelessness has gone up by 75% in the last five years.

Record-high rents and inflation, as well as record-high evictions, mortgage rates, property insurance and property taxes, a turbulent housing market, plus a lag in affordable housing development, mixed with exhausted financial aid resources, and storm-related displacements have all combined to catalyze this alarming trend — and have put pressure on legislators to act.

Municipalities taking action

On a local level, municipalities have adopted new ordinances in an attempt to control the situation, but not all jurisdictions have taken the same approach across Central Florida.

In Orange County, the City of Orlando voted to ban lying or sitting on public sidewalks earlier this year, citing safety concerns. This was done in spite of public cries against the measure.

Several organizations and advocates for people experiencing homelessness argued that the new order is vague and has the potential to harm already-vulnerable people by further criminalizing homelessness. According to experts and advocates, Orlando is in dire need of shelters, and as homelessness continues to rise, so do arrests.

“The growing issue of homelessness has been met with increasingly strict homeless legislation that seeks to reduce the visibility of unhoused individuals by penalizing them for doing what all humans need to do to sustain life -- such as sleeping -- in public. We believe laws or ordinances that prohibit sitting, sleeping or sharing food in public spaces are inhumane,” the HSNCFL posted to social media after the ordinance was passed.

City officials in other places like Altamonte Springs in Seminole County and DeLand in Volusia County said that, while they’re passing similar legislation, their approaches are different.

A graph showing the decline of homelessness in Florida since 2010. It starts at nearly 60,000 cases, and by 2017, it shows just over 30,000.
A 2018 graph from the Florida Housing Coalition, showing the decline of homelessness in Florida since 2010. A more recent look shows a spike since 2019, which has been the driver of the recent flurry of legislation.

Both cities have adopted policies that mirror Miami’s Pottinger Agreement, which states law enforcement can only arrest someone unsheltered if they have an alternative or refuse help. They must also not dispose of unhoused individuals’ property and treat them with dignity.

Last week, DeLand adopted three ordinances to ban encampments without a permit, lying or sitting on public sidewalks, and storing personal property on public grounds. However, to avoid arrests, the city has partnered with local shelters to designate “safe zones” for people violating the ordinances and who have nowhere else to go.

There, people can get a meal, an overnight bed, and if they choose to, housing and employment resources, as well as mental healthcare. Officials said the goal is keeping residents safe and bridging individuals back into housing.

“If there are no beds available, then the camping ordinance would not be enforceable as it would not be Pottinger compliant. Though we have been assured that space would be available,” Community Information Manager Chris Graham said. “The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia is building a storage area where personal belongings — this includes unlawfully stored belongings — will be kept.”

The Altamonte Springs City Council also voted to ban encampments at the start of the year, but City Manager Frank Martz said he’s proud of his city’s track record on addressing homelessness.

“Our first steps when we have somebody who is homeless in Altamonte Springs, is we look for a place for them to go and to have shelter. And if we can't find a place for them at a shelter, we put them up in hotels, so that they have shelter for that night. And we have done that many times through the years,” Martz said.

Florida has its own plans

On the state level, the Florida Legislature is reviewing legislation which would preempt local governments and ban unauthorized sleeping or camping on public grounds. Citing sanitation and safety concerns, the legislation provides requirements for where, when, and how municipalities can provide shelter or offer camps to people living unhoused, mandating supervision, inspections, and a connection to mental health resources.

Supporters of the bills said homelessness has grown to impact day-to-day life, and this will help mitigate the situation before it gets out of control. Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed his support for the legislation.

“Ultimately, I think the mental health component of this is really, really good,” DeSantis said. “We want to encourage people to get on their feet but, at a minimum, we can’t have a family feel unsafe just walking down the street."

Some activists and legislators who oppose the legislation acknowledged there are good intentions, but said that unintended consequences from the proposed law could lead to arrests and a lack of funding provisions to help municipalities meet the demands.

Sen. Rosalind Osgood has spoken openly about her own lived experience as a single mother experiencing homelessness years ago and is urging the Legislature to reconsider.

"I just think that the government exists to help people and not hurt them. The government has to prioritize people, especially people that are suffering,” Osgood said. “I think the state of Florida is greater than that."

A graph from the Florida Department of Health shows a spike in homelessness in Osceola County since 2016, ramping up after 2021.
A tighter timeline shows homelessness is on the rise again. This 2023 graph from the Florida Department of Health shows a spike in homelessness in Osceola County since 2016, ramping up after 2021. Graphs for Orange and Seminole counties resemble this pattern.

SCOTUS, a broader scope

Ultimately, federal laws might intervene.

In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that arresting or fining unsheltered people for having to survive outdoors is cruel and unusual punishment — that is now being challenged. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case, and depending on its ruling, people living in public spaces, whether it be out in the open, in the woods, in tents, or in their cars, could face displacement or incarceration.

Rajni Shankar-Brown, a professor at Stetson University in DeLand, and also the President of the National Coalition for the Homeless Board and a United Nations partner, focuses on housing, economic, and social justice.

She said her main concerns include the violation to human rights, saying leaders could be using the time and resources to find housing solutions instead of causing harm. She said she believes these laws are biased and misguided, rooted in classist, ableist, and racist stereotypes.

“Criminalizing homelessness is dehumanizing, traumatizing; it is expensive, and completely counterproductive. It undermines supportive housing solutions, it adversely impacts lives and communities, especially for people most vulnerable, who have been socially and historically marginalized,” Shankar Brown said. “We need accessible physical, mental, behavior, health care; we need quality and inclusive education, employment opportunities, compassion and empathy.. not additional violations of human and civil rights. We don't need ineffective measures that waste taxpayer dollars. These ordinances are further creating issues and social inequalities. It is ridiculous and not logical.”

Shankar Brown said this is a time to call people to action and to practice “radical empathy.”

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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