Tampa Bay leaders say new law banning people from sleeping in public fails to address homelessness

“To sleep is to exist, in order to exist as humans we have to sleep. And so this bill is basically criminalizing the existence of a group of people."

click to enlarge Tampa Bay leaders say new law banning people from sleeping in public fails to address homelessness
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Florida has seen a 17% increase in homelessness in the past year alone and local leaders say a new bill prohibiting municipalities from allowing homeless individuals to camp or sleep on public property will likely do very little to  address the issue.

As he signed HB 1365 on March 20, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the law serves the best interests of “law abiding citizens.”

“Too often people in other states, other cities, they’re not doing well. It’s like they let the inmates run the asylum,” he said, from a podium which read, “Don't Allow Florida to become San Francisco.”

But the measure doesn’t include any specific penalties for those sleeping on the street. It does, however, allow residents and business-owners to sue local governments for not enforcing the law.

And that is a problematic approach, according to some Tampa Bay leaders.

Aaron Swift, a lawyer and the Vice Chair of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, says one of the legal consequences of HB 1365 includes something called an attorney’s fee provision. This means that anyone who sues the municipality for not enforcing the bill and wins gets their attorney fees paid by the municipality.

“Private attorneys now are going to basically be stepping in the shoes of the government and suing to enforce the government regulation,” Swift told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “If this happens a lot and the county isn't able to enforce public sleeping very well, it could be faced with tens of hundreds of lawsuits…those costs and attorneys fees can rack up.”

The county would be forced to pay these fees with money that could instead go towards affordable housing and other services for homeless people.

The bill allocates $30 million in preparation to enforce the new law, but for the most part local officials in Tampa Bay aren't sure how HB 1365 is going to be enforced.

A spokesperson for the St. Petersburg Police Department told CL that she’s confident that existing laws around sleeping in public won’t impact her officers, but the City of Tampa and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) are still reviewing enforcement.

Amanda Sinni, Sergeant at PCSO’s Public Information Office, told CL, “There are many nuances with the law that have to be worked through and there seems to be some confusion about the designation process that needs to be cleared up. We look forward to meeting with the county and the cities in the near future to come up with a plan that ensures the law is followed in Pinellas County.”

Swift added that the funds from the state are not nearly enough to provide permanent housing or wraparound services like mental health and addiction aid. “It's just so woefully shortsighted,” Swift said.

Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showed that in 2023, Pinellas County was in the top 10 regions across the country when it comes to people experiencing homelessness (including individuals and families), plus veterans and the chronically unhoused.

Individuals alone accounted for 2,144 people in the HUD data, taken from a January 2023 point-in-time-survey. According to the Homeless Leadership Alliance there are currently 1,986 total shelter beds in Pinellas County.

“As we sit here today, and once the bill goes into effect, at that exact moment, there will not be enough beds,” Swift said. And even some shelters that do have available beds can’t afford to staff them.

“If you add another 100 people and beds…you're going to need more food, more cooks, all the things that go with it. That's another reason why I think the money is so short. Its properties, its land, its housing, its staffing, its salaries, its insurance. It's so much more and I think this bill was just put through too quickly, without full analysis of all the consequential things that are going to happen,” Swift told CL.

And he’s not the only local leader thinking about Pinellas’ homeless population.

Reverend Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church is well known in the community for his progressive sermons and activism, as well as his work with unhoused people.

“We live in a culture where the lives of the unhoused are devalued. It's just the day to day horrific ways they're treated. They are treated like animals. The government even uses words like infestation. And these are people,” he told CL.

Of the new law Oliver said, “To sleep is to exist, in order to exist as humans we have to sleep. And so this bill is basically criminalizing the existence of a group of people. And it's immoral and it's wrong.”

Former Republican Senator Jeff Brandes said on the WEDU program “Florida This Week,” “I think when you get to the end of that, you realize people are still going to be living on the streets. Either the cities are not going to be able to do that or the jails are going to be full. And you’re going to hear from the sheriffs that you’re going to need to expand the jails.”

On April 22 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case regarding the legal treatment of unhoused people as well. In City of Grants Pass v. Johnson the court will decide whether it is considered cruel and unusual punishment to imprison homeless people for sleeping outside, even when shelters are unavailable. If the court’s decision is that you cannot punish people for sleeping outside, Swift says that portions of the new Florida law will have to be rewritten.


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Suzanne Townsend

Suzanne Townsend is a senior at the University of South Florida, dual majoring in Digital Communications and Multimedia Journalism, plus art history. She’s also Arts & Life editor at the Crow’s Nest, the student newspaper at USF’s St. Pete Campus. She graduates in May 2024.
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