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A Florida ban on unhoused people sleeping on public property is being described as cruel

A homeless person wearing warm clothing is lying on a bench
Srdjan Randjelovic/Srdjan

Cities and counties in Florida would not be allowed to let unhoused people sleep on public property—but municipalities could set up designated public areas for camping. Many are calling it the bill cruel and unworkable as it heads to the governor's desk for consideration.

“It’s heartbreaking because you’re here to do a mighty work, but you feel like an ant in a room full of giants," said Big Bend Continuum of Care Executive Director, Johnna Coleman. The agency helps unhoused people in the area, and a day after the bill's passage, Coleman says she's feeling devastated.

"[Like] There’s thousands of tiny…ants, but one giant smashes lots of ants at one time. That’s how this feels.”  

She’s not alone. In the runup to the measure’s passage, some lawmakers tried, in vain, to stop it. Democratic Senator Rosalind Osgood told colleagues that she’s been homeless before—both in and out of addiction recovery, and she argued the bill overlooks several critical issues.

"If we’re going to eliminate homelessness we need to be intentional about addressing the needs of every single homeless person across the entire state," she said.

The issues that surround homelessness are as complex as the people who find themselves in that situation. But Osgood’s plea to her fellow Senators didn’t go far in heading off the inevitable passage of a proposal that she and others say doesn’t get at the many causes of homelessness—like addiction, mental illness, and rising costs of housing.

“This is about not wanting to see the failures in our society that have brought about homelessness," says Orlando Democratic Senator, Geraldine Thompson.

Under the measure, cities and counties can’t allow people to sleep in areas like sidewalks and public libraries, and while the measure doesn’t criminalize such actions, "It's kind of like out of sight, out of mind" Thompson said.

The measure would allow municipalities to designate public camping sites that have access to sanitation, security and mental health services, though some smaller, rural counties wouldn’t have to provide that. The measure is backed by Republican Representative Sam Garrison and Republican Senator Johnathan Martin. And ahead of the bill’s passage, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo defended it.

“It breaks my heart to see people live like that. We’ve got to do something to help. I applaud Representative Garrison. his heart is in the right place, you can disagree on the language of the bill but we’re  going to get this past the finish line and we’re going to help people," she said.

The bill is an outgrowth of ongoing concerns around the heightened visibility of unhoused people—Gov. Ron DeSantis has been openly critical of cities like San Francisco that have large populations of people living in homelessness, and he’s repeatedly said that he doesn’t want Florida to become that.

 “It’s our responsibility to deal with homelessness and that’s why we cannot wait any longer to bring this solution," said Senate bill sponsor, Jonathan Martin.

The proposal does NOT come with any additional money for these camps, but Martin says there’s already money flowing to cities and counties to address homelessness. The Big Bend’s Johnna Coleman says that’s an oversimplification and misses critical points. Money alone won’t help, she says, if the state never addresses the myriad of regulations that govern how it can be spent.

“You have strings attached. When we receive any federal, state and local dollars. And there are things we can do and we can't do. And it all boils down to, even if we had enough money to house everyone…we don’t have the units to put them in.”

For now, she says she’ll just have to figure out how to protect people who are unhoused from being bounced from place to place.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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