Nearly 900 homeless individuals have been arrested in Sarasota for sleeping outdoors, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and six houseless men on Sept. 30. The suit has brought the city of Sarasota into the spotlight for practices which the plaintiffs say criminalize the homeless and hinder them from life-sustaining activities.
Three of the plaintiffs are currently residing in transitional shelters and will lack adequate housing when they leave those facilities. The other three are currently without any nighttime residence and live in fear of being criminally prosecuted for sleeping in a park or public place.
Plaintiff David Cross spends a significant amount of each day reading books in the Selby Library downtown. In August, he was found sleeping in the bushes outside of the library by a police officer and subsequently trespassed from the property. Until Cross was able to appeal his trespass warning, he was banned from the library, a public, air-conditioned, safe space where he read everyday.
The lawsuit presents what plaintiffs say is an aggressive enforcement of an ordinance that bans sleeping outdoors. The city set forth this policy to “solve” the problem of homelessness by forcing the homeless to either leave Sarasota or face criminal prosecution. This is not the first time the city has been accused of trying to get rid of Sarasota’s homeless; last year, the city commission put $1,000 into a fund dedicated to buying one-way bus tickets for homeless residents.
The suit explains that such ordinances – enacted by city government and enforced by the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) – are unconstitutional. The plaintiffs added that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because Sarasota is lacking in housing and shelter space for the homeless.
A similar lawsuit was brought against the city of Boise, Idaho by homeless plaintiffs in 2009. The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest saying that it is a crime to penalize homeless people for sleeping in public places when there is insufficient shelter space or housing.
In 2011, Sarasota city and county submitted a Consolidated Plan which addressed the large need for homeless services. The major strategy for meeting this need was the building of a homeless shelter in North Sarasota by 2015.
Last year, when several sites were chosen for this shelter, the city repeatedly rejected these options, refusing to approve a shelter which was within city limits.
Criminalizing homelessness may reduce the amount of funding Sarasota receives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD announced last month that they would effectively punish cities by withholding money for localities which use “quality of life” laws. Such laws criminalize the homeless rather than work toward fair housing practices and providing outreach services to those affected.
According to the SPD website, their Homeless Coordinator is tasked with addressing “quality of life issues that arise from the homeless community” and enforcing city codes.
“Because of the lack of shelter space and the inability to obtain permanent housing, a large number of individuals who are homeless in Sarasota will remain so for the foreseeable future,” the lawsuit states.
According to U.S. Census data from 2013, nearly 60 percent of renters in Sarasota pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. This represents a severe cost-burden for more than 18,000 Sarasota residents. For low-income residents, housing represents an even greater burden. A recent study from the Florida Housing Coalition found that the number of low-income renters in Sarasota who are cost-burdened by their rent has increased 12 percent in the last 10 years.
According to the Suncoast Coalition to End Homelessness 2015 Point in Time Count, 22 percent of currently homeless individuals surveyed said they spent the previous night in an emergency shelter. Nearly as many people spent the last night in a “place not meant for habitation,” such as a park, sidewalk or street.
The Salvation Army is one of the only resources for those looking for a sheltered night of sleep in Sarasota. Their website states they have more than 200 beds in the emergency shelter, but with a 2015 count of more than 1,360 homeless people in Sarasota County, this reveals a shortage exceeding 1,000 beds. The Salvation Army also requires a fee of $8 each night and is not open 24 hours. Many nights, it fills to capacity and those left over must sleep on mats in the kitchen or outside the facility, for the same fee. Individuals who sleep on overflow mats in the facility’s kitchen must leave the building at 4:30 a.m..
Still, many people are left either unable to pay the Salvation Army’s fee or they have been previously trespassed from the facility and must find another place to get a night’s rest.
The lawsuit is not going to hinder SPD from continuing the work they do with the homeless. “We’re just not going to get distracted with lawsuits and false accusations,” Chief of Police Bernadette DiPino told Fox13.
“I have a lot of empathy for the leadership at the police department,” ACLU Vice President Michael Barfield told ABC7. “They have been thrust into this social issue by politicians who have failed to act.”
Information for this article was taken from suncoastpartnership.org, heraldtribune.com, justice.gov.
David Cross, Shawn Davis, Donald Gould, Paul Lonardo, Joseph Vasta and George Zellner