Rehabilitation, not criminalization: homeless advocates aim to end housing crisis.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Community Planning and Development reported that, on a single night in January 2011, across the nation, 636,017 people were homeless. Almost two-thirds of these people were in shelter, while 38 percent went unsheltered. While five states (Calif., N.Y., Fla., Tex. & Ga.) accounted for 50 percent of the total, Florida ranked third for having the highest rate of homelessness.

In the West Central Florida region, from Citrus south to Sarasota County, there were about 15,000 who were homeless, accounting for about 42 percent of the state’s homeless population.

While many of those without shelter are seen in downtown areas, near public libraries and at unsuspecting traffic lights, there are thousands more grade-school aged children (3,000 in Sarasota/Manatee alone), parents, elderly and young people who face the challenges of homelessness. Many find themselves in hotels, cars, with relatives and friends, shelters or other forms of semi- or non-permanent housing. Many have jobs and attend school, and many are pushed to the margins of society due to drug addiction or mental disability.

Those without permanent residence are not only in need of assistance, but they are also difficult for providers to know who and how many are in need of their services. New College Alum Richard Martin (’93), Executive Director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homeless (SPEH), described to the Tangent how, when working for the 2010 U.S. Census, he went to the Walmart parking lot at 4:00 A.M. Even then, people were reluctant to be known.

“Homeless people don’t tend to raise their hand and say they’re homeless,” Martin said. “They tend to hide out and wear the best clothes in public.” He emphasized that those who are seen on street corners constitute only 10 percent of the homeless population, generally those facing chronic homelessness — those who have had several bouts of homelessness for at least three months.

“In terms of counting the homeless, it’s very difficult,” Martin continued. “We say that if we know about 2,000 people in Sarasota/Manatee, we can easily multiply that by a factor of five. And that’s still an undercount.”

Last week, the Southeast Institute on Homelessness and Supportive Housing held its annual conference in Clearwater Beach. Over a hundred organizations from around the state converged to share successes and failures related to the goal of ending homelessness in Florida.

“I think homelessness is really like a hopeless kind of a mission for the people that are working out there,” Martin said. He described the hope that attendees get coming out of the conference, through networking and learning strategies from different communities.

The goal of eradicating homelessness, while having always been a desire of communities, is now part of a national effort, spearheaded by the Obama administration, HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), which enacted Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness (FSP) in 2010. The FSP laid out four goals for federal agencies and the homeless assistance community: end chronic homelessness in five years; prevent and end homelessness among veterans in five years; prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children within a decade; and set a path to eradicate all types of homelessness.

One of the main strategies to ending chronic homelessness is that of “housing first” initiatives.

“Housing first is one of the most successful concepts [within strategies to end homelessness],” Corry Neal, who works with an organization that serves West-Central Florida’s homeless and at-risk individual and family population, told the Tangent. Neal noted that it is a misconception that those with drug and alcohol problems lack the ability to be self-sustainable or hold down a job.

“Traditional thinking was that you first make them clean and sober to get housing,” Neal continued. Today, it is widely accepted in the assistance community that this is not the case.

Neal noted that some homeless people use alcohol in order to self medicate, as they lack income to afford medical expenses or refrigeration for medicines, and that eliminating day-to-day stresses for basic needs is what is most important.

“Give them a roof, the rest falls into place,” she said.

Linda Kaufman, the Eastern U.S. Field Organizer for 100,000 Homes Campaign, held a workshop on Thursday morning at the conference. She asked attendees to write five words on five separate sticky-notes, which defined who they were as people. One by one, Kaufman asked attendees, who all work in communities as homeless assistance providers, to ball up the least important self-definition, and throw it on the floor. Away with “compassionate,” “caring,” “husband,“ “funny,” “loving,” At the end of the exercise, people were left with no sticky notes, no identity. Kaufman used the exercise to emphasize the importance of their work.

“You’re working with people who may have lost everything,” she said. As the group demonstrated, “everything” can include losing a sense of self.

Although the Institute’s goal was to provide communication and strategy building for organizations, the conference was unwittingly pre-scheduled to coincide with the enactment of so-called anti-homeless ordinances.

Recently, the City of Clearwater passed ordinances, which the institute says serve to criminalize and perpetuate the problems of homelessness. Ordinances 8344-12, 8340-12 and 8345-12 mirror those passed in Sarasota. Sarasota’s ordinances criminalize actions such as sleeping in public space, panhandling, sitting or lying down and smoking downtown. These laws were found twice to be unconstitutional, but have since passed and are now being enforced.

At the Aug. 20 Sarasota City Commission meeting, their was a decision increase enforcement of the city’s “anti-vagrant” laws after business leaders reported “aggressive behavior” from many homeless people downtown. By the Sept. 4 meeting, it was reported that 55 arrests had been made near Five Points Park; most were for open containers and smoking.

Similarly, Clearwater’s ordinances include restrictions against camping, panhandling, bathing, and sitting or laying down in the downtown business district and Clearwater Beach area.

“We obviously couldn’t reschedule the conference,” Suzanne Edwards, president of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless, said at a press conference before the Institute’s first session on Wednesday. “Unfortunately these types of ordinances are becoming a trend in Florida. This is not the only community that is trying to arrest its way out of homelessness.

“That is not sound public policy,” she added. “It is very expensive, it is very dehumanizing. And in the end you will not end homelessness by arresting people. You will only provide housing in the most expensive settings – the county jail.”

Shannon Nazworth, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, continued, “We need to, as a society, take on the practices that have already been demonstrated to reduce homelessness, and that’s provide public housing. And if they need services, then provide the services they need.”

In Sarasota, the presence of the homeless population in the downtown area, especially Five Points Park, has been one of the most contested issues in recent City Commission history.

New College Alum Adam Tebrugge (’79,) an attorney and current candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, District 71, spent 23 years as assistant public defender serving Sarasota, Manatee and Desoto counties.

“While working as a public defender, I started to see a lot of homeless people arrested, usually for minor offenses like having an open container,“ Tebrugge said. As a lawyer he saw that these minor offenses brought people into a cycle of debt, which accrued through various fines and court costs.

In 2005, Tebrugge joined Board of Directors for SPEH, and has served as a chairperson since 2009. He noted that communities across the country have enacted such anti-homeless legislation. In some cases, laws have been struck down and deemed unconstitutional.

“One thing is clear,” he continued. “You can’t criminalize the status of being homeless. What you can criminalize is behaviors such as drinking alcohol or public urination.”

Tebrugge noted that the camping ordinance in Sarasota “has always been problematic. It criminalizes sleeping, and sleeping is one of these day to day activities of human existence that we all need to do.

“So if they cannot criminalize sleeping, they add on some extra evidence that the officer is to look for, like carrying around possessions,” Tebrugge added.

This Saturday, Oct. 6, Tarpon Springs Food Not Bombs (FNB,) along with the Tampa FNB chapter, will host protesters at an action aimed against the Clearwater ordinances. William Kilgore, of Tarpon FNB, said that the protest will be held as a solidarity action with those affected by the laws.

Kilgore commented on the state of his community: “Tarpon is one of the last refuges for homeless people in the area.” He noted that there has been an influx in the last month of those seeking refuge in Tarpon Springs. This change has brought more police action, he said.

The activist referred to similar backlash after the passage of ordinances in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota.

“It’s only a mater of time before that idea of passing laws that target homeless people is going to spread throughout the entire area,” Kilgore said. “They’re directly criminalizing poverty.”

Martin, a former city mayor of Sarasota, sees a lack of care in the realm of city government as one of Sarasota’s main barriers to eradicating homelessness. He explained why he works in public service, “I think it’s something really important at these times, to challenge the local community on stepping up and really thinking holistically about all the people that make a community work, and not to demonize some of them or stereotype some people that might be poor, that might have made bad choices or wrong choices – and just still be there for each other.”

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