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Will a public sleeping ban lead to local tent cities?

Mark Parker

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Two people sleep in front of a business in downtown St. Petersburg. The owners could sue the city for not enforcing a new law. Photo by Mark Parker.

State Sen. Nick DiCeglie has a unique perspective on rapidly advancing legislation that requires local governments to ban the homeless from sleeping on public property.

DiCeglie is also the CEO of Hope Villages of America (HVA), a Clearwater-based nonprofit that helps find and provide stable housing for unsheltered families. The companion bills, vocally endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would allow local governments to move homeless people off the streets and into designated homeless camps with security, sanitation and behavioral health services.

Many Democratic lawmakers and homeless advocates believe the legislation would essentially criminalize homelessness. DiCeglie, a Republican, credited his fellow legislators for attempting to address an increasing problem amid soaring housing costs.

“Me now being in this space (overseeing HVA), I certainly am never going to support anything that’s going to have a negative impact on the homeless community,” DiCeglie told the Catalyst. “The devil is always in the details.”

The governor announced his ardent support for the proposed legislation Feb. 5. “We cannot allow any city in Florida to become like San Francisco, where homelessness, drugs and crime have decimated the quality of life, hurt the economy and eroded freedom,” he said in a prepared statement.

House Bill 1365 and Senate Bill 1530 would prohibit camping on city streets, sidewalks and parks and create an enforcement mechanism to ensure local compliance. The legislation would also increase funding for homeless shelters and wraparound services.

However, as DiCeglie repeatedly noted, many specifics remain unclear. SB1530, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Martin (R-Fort Myers), has cleared several committees and a first reading Monday.

“I know him (Martin) well, and his heart is in the right place,” DiCeglie said. “He’s trying to improve the situation …”

Opponents say the legislation would create tent cities rather than much-needed permanent housing. Sen. Rosaline Osgood (D-Tamarac) rebuked the proposed legislation during a Senate committee meeting.

Osgood was once a homeless young mother who struggled with addiction. She fears people in similar situations would face arrest and familial separation for simply falling asleep on a park bench.

“I just keep thinking about being out there with my babies,” Osgood added.

A homeless person occupies a bench in St. Petersburg’s Edge District.

The legislation allows sleeping in a registered, lawfully parked vehicle. In addition, local governments could designate public camping and sleeping areas “for a continuous period of no longer than one year.”

That designation also requires certification that there are insufficient beds in homeless shelters and that the camps would not adversely affect property values or commercial activity. “I think there’s a key funding element to all of this,” DiCeglie said.

“Who’s going to pay for that one location and all the requirements that go along with it?” he added. “Those questions, in order for me to support the bill, are going to have to be answered as the bill moves forward.”

While lawmakers have not included specific funding in the bills, the House’s proposed budget would provide $20 million for additional homeless services. At a press conference earlier this month, DeSantis said the legislation must “be done right.”

DiCeglie said the governor’s support has provided momentum. The Senate will soon hold a second and final reading.

If approved, the legislation would have a sizable local impact. According to the Homeless Leadership Alliance (HLA), 2,144 people experienced homelessness in Pinellas County throughout 2023.

Pinellas County Schools reported that 3,768 students lacked stable housing in the 2022-23 school year. HLA has not released statistics from its 2024 Point in Time Count, conducted in January.

“This bill would require local governments to essentially follow their ordinances,” DiCeglie said. “It is my understanding that some municipalities are not following their own ordinances …”

A homeless person sleeps on a bench during holiday events at St. Petersburg’s waterfront parks. 

He explained that the bill does not require local governments to create a centrally located homeless camp. DiCeglie said he “would never” support that mandate.

However, as many critics have noted, the alternative is arresting people with nowhere to sleep. DiCeglie said he also does not want to see homeless residents trespassed and arrested.

He called the criminal justice system a “vicious cycle that doesn’t give that individual the necessary services that are clearly available.” DiCeglie said he wants the homeless to receive more permanent housing, learn new skill sets, become employable and experience upward mobility.

“It’s an interesting concept,” he added. “I think there’s still a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

DiCeglie used Pinellas Hope as an example. The 10-acre facility in Clearwater began with 250 tents and now features hundreds of efficiency apartments, cottages, a community center, a library and myriad social services.

However, DiCeglie stressed that county and municipal officials must decide if increasing homeless populations warrant creating a state-designated facility. One thing is certain: If the bills pass, they can no longer allow sleeping in public places.

“I’m certainly taking advantage of my role in the Legislature to make sure the bill sponsor knows my concerns,” DiCeglie said. “I welcome any program that is ultimately going to help these folks get back on their feet, and help us execute our mission at the nonprofit level.”

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Nathalie Marcelin

    April 13, 2024at10:43 pm

    I think it is unethical and weird to take photos of individuals sleeping. It does not matter if it is for a story about being houseless. They deserve dignity and safety just like anyone else.

  2. Avatar

    Ashley

    February 28, 2024at5:42 pm

    I would like more transparency on where the funding is coming from and who is housing these homeless. I understand why they are doing this. It looks bad to tourists. The amount of homeless people sleeping in downtown St. Pete is disturbing, but we can not all be responsible for housing others especially not at tax payers’ expense.

  3. Avatar

    George M.

    February 28, 2024at1:43 pm

    This problem will not go away as our population increases. More responsibility needs to be taken by the families of these people. If no family can be found or if they want no part then the homeless must be collected and put in Shelters where they can get help and aid they need. Stop giving them money! You are NOT HELPING Them

  4. Avatar

    Vincent N. Zito Jr.

    February 28, 2024at10:28 am

    Something must be done. Kids tripping over drug addicts and walking past used needles to get to school is not a normal way of life. Go on YouTube look up Kensington avenue in Philadelphia and you’ll see what the end result will be if nothing at all is done and they are just left to their own devices. If they want to be helped they should get help if they don’t it’s time to lock them up in a facility whether it’s jail or a mental hospital.

  5. Avatar

    JAMES GILLESPIE

    February 27, 2024at8:21 pm

    THE HOMELESS NUMBERS GROW IN AMERICA AND THEY ARE MORE OFTEN SUFFERING MENTAL, DRUG AND RELATED SOCIAL AND HEALTH PROBLEMS. THE INTENT AND SCOPE OF THE LAW GOES IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION BUT SHOULD NOT HAVE A CRIMINAL ANSWER UNLESS STATE CRIMINAL LAWS OR CITY CODES ARE VIOLATED. THE HOMELESS DON’T HAVE A RIGHT TO INFRINGE ON THE RIGHTS OF OTHER CITIZENS. IDEALLY SOME MUST BE REHABILITATED, BUT OTHERS WILL REFUSE. SLEEPING IN PUBLIC PLACES SHOULD MEAN SLEEPING SLEEP IN AUTHORIZED PUBLIC PLACES.

  6. Avatar

    Steven Kenneth Allen

    February 27, 2024at5:52 pm

    Lock up the homeless now there’s an intelligent answer

  7. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    February 27, 2024at4:40 pm

    This legislation can’t be passed soon enough. I have struggled to keep vagrants and drug users out of my mother’s alley; drug addicts habitually use and sell drugs in the open as well as urinate and defecate within eyesight of my children.

    The police have informed me that these people actually have addresses yet they continue to choose to use narcotics and sleep outside. Lock them up! Their antisocial behavior is not okay in the public realm.

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