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Will homeless public sleeping ban have unintended consequences?

Mark Parker

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Tents at Pinellas Hope, an expansive homeless facility in Clearwater, after a storm. Photo: Catholic Charities/Pinellas Hope.

The City of St. Petersburg, like every other state municipality, must strictly enforce a public sleeping ban or face potential lawsuits from people, business owners and the attorney general.

That ensures local enforcement of House Bill 1365, which prohibits anyone with “personal belongings” from sleeping on an empty lot, sidewalks or a park bench. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law Wednesday.

The governor said the bill would help the homeless “get back on their feet” and increase public safety. The Homeless Leadership Alliance (HLA) of Pinellas noted the legislation does not allocate “adequate funding for shelter or vital support services.”

“Florida will not allow homeless encampments to intrude on its citizens or undermine their quality of life like we see in states like New York and California,” DeSantis said in a prepared statement. “The legislation … upholds our commitment to law and order.”

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.

Those efforts can have unintended consequences. The family of a homeless man is now suing the City of St. Petersburg and two police officers after a sleeping in public and trespassing arrest in June 2023 allegedly left him paralyzed and a double amputee.

The lawsuit was filed in Tampa federal court March 18, two days before HB1365 became law. It alleges that Heriberto Sanchez-Mayen, 61, was not secured in a jail transport van.

A video provided by the St. Petersburg Police Department shows Sanchez-Mayen slide across the van’s bench and fall head-first into a metal partition. He was unconscious when Officer Michael Thacker reached the Pinellas County Jail.

The video shows Thacker grabbing Sanchez-Mayen’s feet and dragging him out of the van. The homeless man again struck his head on the bumper and concrete, sustaining injuries to his cervical spine.

According to the lawsuit, the injuries paralyzed Sanchez-Mayen, and doctors amputated both legs above the knee. Prosecutors dropped the criminal trespassing charges against him as the empty lot where he was sleeping lacked properly placed “no trespassing” signs.

Sanchez-Mayen previously received dozens of citations for possessing open containers, panhandling and sleeping in public. “The St. Petersburg Police Department denies the claims and trusts in the judicial process,” the agency wrote in a prepared statement.

An unconscious Heriberto Sanchez-Mayen dangles from St. Petersburg Police transport van after officers arrested the man for sleeping in a vacant lot. Screengrab.

In February, local Sen. Nick DiCeglie told the Catalyst that he does not want to see homeless residents trespassed and arrested. He is also the CEO of Hope Villages of America, a Clearwater-based nonprofit that helps find and provide housing for unsheltered families.

A day before the governor signed HB136 into law, DiCeglie said, “While no bill is perfect, I am satisfied with the final version.”

“My concern remains the crisis of homelessness,” he added. “We have a growing problem, and I believe we need to continue having conversations at the state and local level to continue addressing this important issue.”

The legislation allows sleeping in a registered, lawfully parked vehicle. The governor’s office states that those found sleeping on city streets, sidewalks and in parks will “instead be placed in temporary shelters monitored by law enforcement agencies.”

Communities could create state-sanctioned camps with wraparound services away from businesses and residents if shelters are full. DiCeglie previously questioned who would “pay for that one location and the requirements that go along with it.”

At the time, DiCeglie said he needed those answers to support the bill. “Funding was not part of the legislation,” DiCeglie said March 19. “Since this is just an option for local governments, I don’t anticipate this being an issue.”

The HLA reported that 2,144 people experienced homelessness in Pinellas County throughout 2023, the latest available statistics. Pinellas County Schools reported that 3,768 students lacked stable housing through the 2022-23 school year.

DiCeglie does not anticipate local governments creating a homeless encampment due to the success of local organizations like Pinellas Hope. The 10-acre facility in Clearwater can house 230 people.

Officials who oversee Pinellas Hope recently told WTSP that it is “continuously” at capacity. Jeff Plooster, shelter coordinator, said he has a waiting list with over 100 people seeking services.

In addition, the governor’s announcement notes that state officials have the “enforcement tools needed to ensure local governments comply.” Arresting everyone who is homeless in public leaves local governments vulnerable to civil rights lawsuits – like the one recently filed against the City of St. Petersburg.

Not arresting everyone found sleeping in public could also result in litigation. HB 1365 allows residents, business owners or the attorney general to sue local government for not following the law, which takes effect Oct. 1.

“I believe this bill contributes to the conversation and is just one option of many that are available,” DiCeglie said. “But we need to do more.”

Homeless people occupy benches along St. Petersburg’s South Straub Park amid holiday events and decorations. Photo by Mark Parker.

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    March 25, 2024at5:52 pm

    Bus the homeless to California.

  2. Avatar

    Bobby

    March 25, 2024at3:06 pm

    Family wants to sue because they care so much about their father. If they cared that much why not take care of him before, not when they see $$$$

  3. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    March 24, 2024at7:52 pm

    He criminalized Homelessness and did absolutely Nothing for the Homeless. I pray that he regrets signing that ‘Bill’.

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