Law would ban sleeping in public places


A proposed Atlantic Beach ordinance that would prohibit sleeping or camping on city streets, parks and other public places has stirred debate from the Jacksonville-area homelessness prevention community.

The proposal would require police officers to provide violators with a list of shelters and other community resources or lead to arrests and trespassing charges if those violators refuse to move on.

But the reality of the Jacksonville area’s homelessness issue is that there is no overnight shelter in the Beaches communities and limited space elsewhere. So advocates worry that violators who have no place to go will be arrested.

David Kuhn, 52, stakes out a spot with his pit bull, Casper, at Atlantic Beach and Kernan boulevards Wednesday. The Army veteran, whose last job was in construction, said he has been without a permanent residence for 14 years. A proposed Atlantic Beach ordinance would prohibit sleeping or camping on city streets, parks and other public places. "They tried that in Daytona ... it lasted about a month," Kuhn said. "But to make it illegal to be homeless, how is it illegal to be homeless?"

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And with no jail at the Beaches either, those people who are arrested will be taken to the Duval County detention center in downtown Jacksonville. The city jail is already the area’s largest mental health provider and should not become the area’s largest emergency shelter as well, said Dawn Gilman, CEO of Changing Homelessness, the area agency for homeless prevention.

“That’s not what anybody bargained for when they graduated from the police academy,” she said, citing former Sheriff John Rutherford’s comment that “we can’t arrest our way out of homelessness.”

“If they didn’t have money for housing before they got arrested, they’re not going to have any after,” Gilman said.

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The proposal is not an effort to target homeless people, Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser said. The reason for an arrest must be someone sleeping in a restricted public place or committing another unlawful act while doing so, possibly endangering public health and safety, she said.

Clarifying the intent of the city’s loitering law stemmed from citizen complaints about a homeless person at the Beaches Town Center, as well as the ramifications of an 11th District Court of Appeals ruling. The ruling found that “ordinances that just made it illegal to be homeless are not constitutional,” Glasser said. “That’s not OK. We agree.”

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But the same ruling also found that “sleeping out of doors is not a fundamental right,” according to a city staff report.

So the city needed a new ordinance to accommodate both legalities. The proposal was introduced at the commission’s Monday meeting. The commission will have a public hearing and a final vote at its Nov. 28 meeting.

Atlantic Beach does not have a sizeable homeless population, although city officials do receive complaints from residents concerned about loitering or safety, Glasser said.

A cart containing blankets, pillows, supplies and a wheelchair sits unattended Wednesday at Beaches Town Center in Atlantic Beach. A proposed Atlantic Beach ordinance would prohibit sleeping or camping on city streets, parks and other public places.

One such complaint was “about a person who had taken up residence, so to speak, on the sidewalk in Beaches Town Center,” Deputy City Manager Kevin Hogencamp said.

“That particular person stored his personal belongings, including a bicycle, cart, clothing and other items, on the sidewalk for many consecutive months,” he said.

The proposed ordinance states: “No person shall loiter, lounge or sleep in or upon any street, park or public place or in any public building or obstruct the access to any public building … or obstruct passage through or upon any public street, park or public place.”

According to a staff report about the proposal, “People using these areas as living spaces can raise concern about public safety related to such issues as unsanitary conditions and unfettered access for all citizens who need to share these public spaces.

“The proposed new language … is consistent with current case law and represents a best-practices approach to protect all citizens in our city while recognizing the need to respect the constitutional right of people to travel freely,” according to the report.

Also, the proposal “recognizes the need for support services before those who are in violation of this ordinance are charged with trespassing and respects the need to keep their personal effects secure,” according to the report.

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Atlantic Beach Police Chief Victor Gualillo said officers will warn violators first. Then they will not only provide them with a list of available shelters and services, but “assist them with transportation” to those shelters, he said. Only when such assistance fails to produce results would an arrest occur.

“As proposed, officers who encounter someone violating the provisions … would be charged with a misdemeanor violation of a city ordinance the same as they would have been under the old law, and yes it would constitute a physical arrest,” Gualillo said. “As with our current ordinance, before someone was arrested they must be warned that they were in violation and asked to voluntarily leave the area.”

He acknowledged the Beaches’ lack of shelters but noted that Jacksonville has several and “runs some very good transition programs to assist those in need of housing so the best thing we can do is make sure they have access to those services.” 

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Unfortunately, those shelters are often full, which Gilman said could lead to litigation against Atlantic Beach.

“You have to give them a place to go to. There has to be an alternative” with an open bed, she said.

Jacksonville has about 3,400 homeless people, but only 1,100 or so emergency shelter beds. Finding permanent housing remains a challenge because of the continuing affordable housing crisis in the area, she said.

Cindy Funkhouser, president and CEO of the Sulzbacher homeless center in downtown Jacksonville, said she understands Atlantic Beach city officials’ motives. 

“Atlantic Beach wants to do the right thing, but unfortunately we have never had nor ever will have a shelter at the beach,” she said. “We always want to work collaboratively with all the city governments to do the right thing for the people that we serve and for the community. We look forward to working together to find additional ways to help the homeless population at the beach.”

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Thomas Raines walks away from Mission House in Jacksonville Beach after being timed out from the day center Wednesday. The 36-year-old Army veteran said he has been on the streets since age 14. A proposed Atlantic Beach ordinance would prohibit sleeping or camping on city streets, parks and other public places. "This is the only thing I've known since 14," Raines said. "For me, I grew up on the streets."

Michaele McAvoy is interim executive director of Mission House in Jacksonville Beach, a day center that provides meals, clothing, showers and other services for homeless people. It does not provide overnight shelter.

She endorsed the proposal’s mandate for police officers to inform violators what shelters and services are available to them. “That is a good piece of it,” she said.

But McAvoy was bothered by the potential for arrests of people with no place to go. She also is concerned about whether the new law would be “equally enforced.”

“It looks like it’s being directed at a specific population,” she said. “What about sunbathers that fall asleep on the beach?”

McAvoy said she, Gilman, Funkhauser and Glasser plan to meet soon to discuss “other ways to go about this that would be less punishing.” One idea would be “embedding” social workers in police departments, she said.

Glasser said she welcomes the input.

“This is a conversation that is well worth having,” she said., (904) 359-4109


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