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Tough on the homeless, city deemed heartless

Sarasota defends its no-camping ordinance that won it the top spot on a national "mean list."

Published January 30, 2006

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Gary Watts, 40, passes time on a park bench in Sarasota's Gillespie Park earlier this month. Watts said he lost his job in Lincoln, Neb., and bought a bus ticket south. "If I'm going to be homeless, I'm going to do it where it's warm," he said. "I just don't want to be arrested."

SARASOTA - The arm-twisting came first.

The National Coalition for the Homeless had a deal for Sarasota: Rescind an anti-homeless ordinance and the group would keep the city off its national "mean list."

Other cities in the past had backed down - Fort Myers, Key West, Gainesville. But Sarasota?

"They were not willing to do that," said Michael Stoops, acting director of the coalition.

He was referring to the city's controversial "no-camping" ordinance, which forbids living outside on public or private property without permission. A judge upheld its legality in December after courts deemed two earlier versions unconstitutional.

Stoops claims the ordinance criminalizes homelessness and leaves those living on the street vulnerable to unwarranted arrests. So when city commissioners refused to back down, he decided to drop the hammer of bad publicity.

That's how Sarasota, population 53,000, recently found itself labeled the "meanest city in the nation" toward homeless people, a dubious honor reprinted in newspapers and mentioned on television stations from New York to Denver to San Francisco.

"It's ridiculous. Total baloney," said City Commissioner Lou Ann Palmer. "If anything, the city of Sarasota is one of most caring communities in the world."

That depends on who you ask.

But this much is certain: City ordinance 05-4640 has generated more attention than anyone could have imagined.

* * *

In 2002, the city passed its first no-camping ordinance, along with bans on public urination and aggressive panhandling, after complaints from local residents and business owners.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that during five months in 2003, police arrested more than 120 people under the ordinance. Eventually, a circuit court judge struck it down.

The city tried again, only to have a judge strike down a second version of the ordinance, claiming it penalized "otherwise innocent conduct" and left too much discretion in the hands of police officers.

The commission passed a third version in August. This time, it was labeled a "no-lodging" measure that did not prevent people from merely sleeping outside, but rather forbid residing outdoors. It also included provisions that let police officers offer transportation to a public shelter before arresting someone.

A judge upheld the latest ordinance on Dec. 29.

Even so, the latest edition is a thinly-masked attempt to make homelessness a crime, said Chris Cosden, a local attorney who successfully challenged the ordinance the first two times and vows to appeal it once again.

"What's going on here is the city of Sarasota is trying to make lives of homeless people so miserable that they'll go someplace else," Cosden said. "We should not be treating other human beings this badly.

"Whether that's meaner than any other city, I can't tell you. Is it mean? Yeah. Am I willing to keep fighting them? Yeah."

Sarasota was the only city in Florida to make the national "mean" list. Many municipalities have passed bans on public urination and aggressive panhandling, but those seldom meet opposition.

Hillsborough County also has a law forbidding anyone to camp or live in a trailer except on land that has a permit for such use. Just this month, sheriff's deputies arrested 11 homeless people on charges of illegal camping. Pinellas County and cities such as Clearwater and St. Petersburg have similar bans.

Stoops said Sarasota's persistence in passing the ordinance is what persuaded him to list it as "meaner" than New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and other cities with much larger homeless populations.

"We have never seen a city so determined" to pass anti-homeless legislation, he said.

* * *

Those who support the ordinance fume at the suggestion that the city has less than honorable intentions.

They call the mean list a "publicity stunt," "a joke," and are quick to point out that the group behind it considered only local government actions and ignored the scores of local aid services available to the homeless.

"The negative attention is very demeaning to this city. We have lots of people who give incredible amounts of service," said Palmer, the city commissioner. "This whole thing needs to be ignored. It's ridiculous."

Besides, she doesn't appreciate out-of-town critics suggesting that city officials are out to harass homeless people.

"The whole purpose of the ordinance is to protect the homeless," Palmer said. "It's an attempt try to keep people from living unhealthy and unsafe lives. I think most people feel the reason the City Commission did this was to help, not hurt."

That's exactly how Bryan Pope feels, which is significant, considering he's the general manager of Sarasota's Salvation Army.

"They've lost their credibility as far as I'm concerned," Pope said of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Is Sarasota the meanest city? Not by any stretch of the imagination. I told them they were wrong. They don't care."

He said the city ordinance was meant to "placate a few people's fears" and that it probably won't "make a dime's worth of difference." He said what does make a difference are the dozens of local charitable agencies. The Salvation Army alone provides three meals a day, 200 beds and employment help at its $10.5-million building on 10th Street.

"If somebody wants a helping hand, we'll bend over backward," he said. He called city commissioners "decent, honest people" trying "to do the right thing."

Like others who share his stance, Pope has little tolerance for the criticisms of Stoops, who plans to attend a forum on homelessness in Sarasota in February.

"Everybody can come up with something they like or don't like," he said. "Don't tell me what's wrong here. Tell me how to fix it."

* * *

On a recent Wednesday , Willie Douglas looked out toward the skeletons of new condos rising over downtown Sarasota. He was unshaven and tired, after a night of sleeping outside in the wind and rain.

"They're trying to get us out of town, that's what it is," Douglas, 50 and homeless, said of city ordinance 05-4640. "They don't want us around. We mess up the city. It's for the rich."

A few feet away, a bearded man, who offered his name only as Charlie, shook his head.

"You can't blame the people," he said of the ordinance. But he said he's seen police use it to hassle the homeless around town, even arrest those just trying to sleep.

He thought about it a moment. "Life is difficult enough," he said.

It was just after noon, and the two men were standing outside the Salvation Army. The cafeteria doors opened, and they headed inside for lunch.

-- Brady Dennis can be reached at 813 226-3386 or

[Last modified January 30, 2006, 05:53:09]

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