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Florida lawmakers want to prevent people from sleeping in public without a permit

TALLAHASSEE — A Senate committee Monday backed a proposal that would prevent counties and cities from allowing people to sleep or camp on public property without permits.

Bill sponsor Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, called his proposal (SB 1530) a way to address a mental-health crisis in the state and to assist the “chronically homeless.”

“The current situation does not work,” Martin said. “If we sit around and do nothing, if this bill fails, and we come back next year and try to do something, and we do nothing for another year, it’s gonna be even worse next year.”

The Republican-controlled Senate Community Affairs Committee approved the bill along party lines. A similar House bill (HB 1365) also started moving forward last week.

The Senate proposal would allow local governments to designate certain public property for sleeping or camping if they meet standards set by the Florida Department of Children and Families. The proposal said any designated area couldn’t “adversely and materially” affect residential or commercial properties. Also, the bill would encourage people and businesses to file lawsuits if local governments don’t follow the proposed rules.

Democrats and some advocates for homeless people expressed concerns that wording in the bill is vague about permits. Also, they said people who fall asleep while tanning on the beach or waiting at a bus stop could be found in violation and raised concerns about the financial impact on local governments.

“A municipality’s alternative to raiding public camping areas under this bill is to fund the sites with 24-hour security and mental-health and substance-abuse resources, as well as ensure they don't negatively affect surrounding property values or else be sued by any business or individual,” said Carrie Feit, senior attorney at the Community Justice Project, which represents renters in Miami-Dade County facing eviction and homelessness.

Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Fort Lauderdale, recalled a time when she was working but homeless and preferred sleeping in her car than going to a homeless camp “out of fear of being raped.”

"It can't be our reaction (that) we're going to just put laws in place and they (homeless people) are going to go away,” Osgood said. “They're not going to go away until we deal with the root cause. And a lot of it starts with us humanizing people.”

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Sunny Isles Beach, said he’d prefer the proposal started as a pilot program in Lee County, which is Martin’s home county.

A Senate staff analysis said the bill doesn’t define the terms “sleeping,” “camping” or “permitting.”

“It is unclear whether the bill may interfere with existing local parks and recreation operations,” the analysis said. “While the bill contains an exception for states of emergency issued by the governor, it is unclear whether the bill may interfere with local emergency-management operations during scenarios that do not rise to a state of emergency, such as cold weather warnings.”

The Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities have not taken stances on the proposal.

The House Local Administration, Federal Affairs & Special Districts Subcommittee on Thursday approved the House version, sponsored by Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island.

Both proposals must get approval from two additional panels before they could reach the Senate and House floors.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.