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Local communities question what comes next after Florida bans unhoused camping

Last year, more than half a million people experienced homelessness across the United States
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Last year, more than half a million people experienced homelessness across the United States

Local officials are trying to figure out how to help unhoused people after the approval of a new law that bans municipalities from allowing camping on public property. Supporters say they law encourages local communities to step up, but critics are questioning how that’s supposed to happen when services are underfunded.

The law blocks cities and counties from having rules that allow camping or sleeping in public spaces, like libraires and sidewalks. It’s targeted at addressing homelessness in a state where more than 20,000 people slept outside last year, according to state estimates. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on the new law during a press conference in Miami Beach which has already banned camping in public areas.

“What they mayor is doing…he’s providing them—here’s where you can go. And if they refuse, you can arrest them for being a public nuisance," said DeSantis, who has long criticized states like California, which has a large population of unhoused people. He's vowed that Florida won’t become like that, while acknowledging that many people unhoused have mental health and substance abuse problems.

“You should not be accosted by a homeless…you should be able to walk down the street and live your life," he said.

Leon County Commissioner Rick Minor says neither the city nor the county currently have anything on their books that allow the practice. Minor says should the bill become law, it would shift enforcement authority to local law enforcement.

“For example, the sheriffs office is an independent constitutional office that makes its own prioritized decisions on how to enforce the law and when to make arrests. So it will be up to the sheriffs office…to determine what actions they’re going to take," said Minor.

He says the new law effectively criminalizes a person for being homeless. During Senate debate over the measure, Orlando Democrat Geraldine Thompson accused the bill’s backers of trying to hide, rather that address the underlying problems that cause people to become unhoused.

"Our focus of the bill is not about public property. It’s about not wanting to see the failure in our society that’s brought about homelessness. As long as we don’t have to see these people we don’t have to deal with it. It’ kind of like, out of sight, out of mind," she said.

The new law goes into effect October. Yet it’s left many more questions, than solutions.

For one, the law allows cities and counties to establish common camping areas for unhoused people. The sites would have to have access to sanitation, security and mental health services, though some smaller, rural counties wouldn’t have to provide that. The camps also cannot be located near businesses or residential areas, making it nearly impossible in some areas of the state with high population density. Citizens can also sue municipalities that don’t follow the law.

 

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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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