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Debate over how to treat the homeless simmers in Sarasota, as more cities crack down

Like many cities with temperate climates Sarasota, Fla., is struggling with a growing homeless population. A lawsuit against the city argues that the issuance of citations for sleeping outside has criminalized homelessness. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Karla Murthy reports. This is part of an ongoing series of reports called “Chasing the Dream,” which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.

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  • KARLA MURTHY:

    David Cross has lived on the streets of Sarasota, Florida, since 2008, when he lost his home to foreclosure. The 65-year-old former gas station worker now spends most of his days at the local library.

  • DAVID CROSS:

    The library is a safe place. It's air conditioned. You don't have to be bothered by the so-called riff-raff.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    One night in August, he slept outside the library, which he did from time to time. What time was it when you got woken up by the police?

  • DAVID CROSS:

    About ten past four in the morning. I was sleeping right there.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    The police issued a trespass warning, which would have banned cross from the library for an entire year.

  • DAVID CROSS:

    I wouldn't have known what to do with myself…

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    The reason Sarasota police cited for his warning was a city ordinance against "lodging out-of-doors," which prohibits sleeping or camping outside on public or private property without permission. Across the country, advocates say a growing number of cities have been criminalizing homelessness. According to a survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the number of cities with city-wide bans on camping or sleeping outside has increased 50 percent since 2011.

  • MICHAEL BARFIELD, VP OF ACLU OF FLORIDA:

    Being homeless is not a crime in this country.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Michael Barfield is Vice President of Florida's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. In September, the ACLU sued Sarasota on behalf of David Cross and others, arguing: "Criminalizing the sleeping in a public space when there is no publicly available shelter violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment." The suit also challenges Sarasota's ban on panhandling, arguing that it "constitutes speech protected under the First Amendment."

  • MICHAEL BARFIELD:

    They get, accumulate criminal convictions that affect their ability to obtain employment, to obtain a valid driver's license. All of these things that would help them get out of the cycle of chronic homelessness, the city is using as tools that keep them within that cycle.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Sarasota is called "paradise" by the people who live here. It's become one of the top-rated places to retire. But like many cities around the country it's found itself in the middle of a debate for how to treat the growing number of people here living on the street.

    There are more than 300 people in the city of Sarasota classified as "chronically homeless," meaning they've been on the streets for more than a year. All together there are about 1,400 homeless people in Sarasota County, an increase of nearly 70% since 2009.

    After the lodging ordinance passed in 2005, the National Coalition for the Homeless declared Sarasota "the meanest city in the country." In 2011, the city removed benches from a park popular among homeless people.

  • TOM BARWIN, SARASOTA CITY MANAGER:

    We're trying to deal with the situation in the most humanitarian way that we can.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Tom Barwin has been the city manager since 2012 and says 'the meanest city' label is outdated.

  • TOM BARWIN:

    As far as these labels, meanest city x or y, I mean it's really the police departments and the community having very few other options or choices to try to keep the peace.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Police Chief Bernadette DiPino says her department is responding to calls about the homeless from the community.

  • BERNADETTE DIPINO, SARASOTA POLICE CHIEF:

    It was an issue because of the complaints we got from citizens about people sleeping, and doing other things in their doorways, and panhandling, and being aggressive in begging for money, and people sometimes are just scared by homeless just by the way they smell, or the way they look, or the way they're acting, so we get a lot of complaints.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    But Chief DiPino she says the city has altered its approach. Citations for lodging out-of-doors have fallen nearly 80 percent since she took over the department in 2013.

  • BERNADETTE DIPINO:

    Our police department really shouldn't be the first person dealing with an individual that's homeless, although we do, because we are the ones that are in the street, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Last year the police department and the city created "HOT teams" that pair officers with caseworkers to connect the homeless with available services. I followed a HOT team as it patrolled a densely wooded area on the outskirts of Sarasota, where a group of homeless people had set up an illegal encampment. Instead of issuing citations, the HOT team provides information.

  • CALVIN COLLINS, SARASOTA POLICE SOCIAL WORKER:

    You have our cards right there. Resurrection House. I'm at the Health Department on Wednesdays.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Calvin Collins is a HOT team social worker who works with the homeless all over the city.

  • CALVIN COLLINS:

    Oftentimes, they suffer from either mental illness or substance abuse issues, and we just have to continue to motivate. And many of these folks have said, 'You know, I don't want help, I'm happy where I am.' But we have to continue to engage them and hopefully one day, they'll want to change their situation.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Officer Dave Dubendorf says HOT teams check up on this camp about once a week.

  • DAVE DUBENDORF, SARASOTA POLICE OFFICER:

    These guys all know me by first name, I know them by first name. They feel very trusting, they're easier around me.

  • MAN:

    And this guy is going to help me get out of here.

  • CALVIN COLLINS:

    Yes, Sir.

  • DAVE DUBENDORF:

    This guy needs to help himself get out of here too…

  • MAN:

    I know…

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Officer Dubendorf says the anti-lodging ordinance is just a tool in his toolbox.

  • DAVE DUBENDORF:

    Sometimes we need that tool to try to drive somebody to want to get help, because a lot of these guys, we've been working at it for years and years. If we can use that, it may not be the right thing, but you know what, if it gets them to want to get back up on their feet and be safe, I'm all for it.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    In downtown Sarasota the HOT team engages with some people near the bus station, including 52-year old Dorothy Meehan.

  • CASEWORKER:

    What do you need to get all that stuff?

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Meehan gets around in a wheelchair since she was injured in a hit and run accident last year. Sarasota police have issued her more than 50 citations mostly for minor offenses including drug possession and carrying an open container. But also for lodging out-of-doors and trespassing. She's been jailed a dozen times.

  • DOROTHY MEEHAN:

    The reasoning behind a lot of the city ordinances really have nothing to do with anything criminal. It's basically just that somebody didn't want to see you there.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Last month, the Florida ACLU added Meehan as a plaintiff in its lawsuit challenging the policy of arresting people for sleeping outside.

  • DOROTHY MEEHAN:

    I understand if it's a nuisance, alright, you're making a big mess, you're causing a ruckus, or there's tons of people where they can't control the situation. But if I'm sleeping by myself, I'm sleeping, I'm not fighting with anybody, I'm certainly not arguing, I'm not drinking. I'm sleeping. And I don't see what the crime is against that.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    We've talked to a lot of homeless people here in Sarasota, and some have said, when we meet the police they are trying to help us, and some of them don't feel necessarily that way, and feel like they're just making it a crime to be homeless. What's going on here?

  • BERNADETTE DIPINO:

    I really can't answer that, because the homeless that I've had dealings with, and the information that I've received back from people that have gone out and talked to the homeless is very positive about our police department. Our officers are working very hard to have relationships with people out on the street and try to get them help.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    It seems like the city has really changed the way they're dealing with homeless people in terms of having a caseworker go out with police officers. Has that made any difference?

  • MICHAEL BARFIELD:

    I think it has made some difference. It is a positive sign. But at the same time, the city is using this sort of carrot and stick approach, and they don't have the resources to fulfill the promises they make to people for assistance.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    What resources are available for the homeless in Sarasota is the center of this debate. There is only one large homeless shelter in Sarasota, which is run by the Salvation Army. Ethan Frizzell is in charge.

  • ETHAN FRIZZELL, SALVATION ARMY:

    So what are we against? Drinking, drugging, and dying on our corner. What are we for? Housing!

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    The shelter is zoned for 260 beds, most of which are reserved for people who enroll in Salvation Army programs for things like substance abuse and help finding housing. There is room for walk-ins to stay overnight. Most stay on these mats, which are laid out in the cafeteria after dinner. Six beds are set aside for the homeless brought in by the police.

  • ETHAN FRIZZELL:

    So if they're drinking or whatnot, this, this is fine.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    The ordinance says that before a citation or an arrest is made, a police officer has to offer to bring that person to a shelter, which is usually the Salvation Army. But the Florida ACLU lawsuit argues that the shelter is at or above capacity most of the time.

  • MICHAEL BARFIELD:

    You either have a shelter, or you don't criminalize behavior that requires a shelter.

  • ETHAN FRIZZELL:

    Are there days that we're very full? Yes, we are. But it's because some people come in on days of terrible weather or whatnot, but they don't want to come into any program that will change their lives or help them to housing.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    Two years ago, the city of Sarasota and the county agreed to build a new emergency shelter, but officials are now at odds about the size and location of any shelter. The city is now considering a 'housing first' approach, a model that's been used around the country. It places the chronically homeless in permanent apartments first and then offers support services. Sarasota estimates it would cost less than the 10 million dollars a year the county currently spends on treating or incarcerating the homeless. City Manager Tom Barwin says he's confident the city's ordinances pass constitutional muster and calls the lawsuit a distraction that misses the larger national issue.

  • TOM BARWIN, SARASOTA CITY MANAGER:

    I don't think it's advancing any solutions. We've got this huge, gaping hole in the mental health infrastructure. That's the real problem, and here in Florida, we're the third-most populated state in the country, yet we're 49th in funding mental health, okay.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    David Cross appealed his trespass warning to the police and won, so Cross can still hang out inside the library. But he still worries about run-ins with the police.

  • DAVID CROSS, HOMELESS:

    They're doing everything possible to get the homeless element out of the city.

  • KARLA MURTHY:

    So then why not leave?

  • DAVID CROSS, HOMELESS:

    Where am I going to go? It's beautiful here. I'm 65 years old. You come to Florida to retire.

Editor’s Note: Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

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