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Ocala Proposes Amendment To City Ordinance Following Decision In Homelessness Lawsuit

The homeless population of Ocala was awarded a huge victory earlier this month after a decision was made in a 2019 lawsuit against the city of Ocala.

Now, the city is seeking to amend its open lodging ordinance.

U.S. District Court Judge James S. Moody on Feb. 8 ruled that the city’s open lodging ordinance unlawfully punishes individuals on the basis of their homeless status.

The case, McArdle vs. City of Ocala, was filed on behalf of Patrick McArdle, Courtney Ramsey and Anthony Cummings, three individuals experiencing homelessness in Ocala. The individuals were represented by Southern Legal Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, and a pro bono attorney, Andy Pozzuto.

Kirsten Anderson, litigation director for Southern Legal Counsel and lead counsel for the plaintiffs, explained that the main takeaway from the ruling on this case is that punishing people on the basis of homelessness status constitutes cruel or unusual punishment. The judge ruled this violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Our criminal laws should really punish conduct and things that people do and not punish people for who they are or for something like sleeping, which is essential to survival,” Anderson said.

The initial lawsuit alleged that the city’s current open lodging ordinance unlawfully targets the city’s homeless population and violates protections afforded under the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit also sought to challenge the city’s trespass policy.

The current ordinance states, “It shall be unlawful for any person at any time to lodge in the open on public property,” which includes parks, sidewalks and public benches. An officer is able to make an arrest for lodging in public if a person “relates that he or she is otherwise homeless.” This subsection to the ordinance was labeled as the primary issue in the case.

On Tuesday, an amendment to the open lodging ordinance was proposed at the Ocala City Council meeting. The amendment seeks to remove this subsection of the ordinance, as it has been deemed unnecessary. The city council report states that this subsection is not needed as the city will enforce the ordinance “regardless of whether you are homeless or not.”

The three individuals involved in this case have been arrested and convicted several times for violating the open lodging ordinance. The Southern Legal Counsel press release notes that between 2016 to 2019, McArdle had spent 219 nights in jail after being arrested 10 times for violating the ordinance. He has also been charged over $4,000 in court costs.

Ramsey was arrested six times in 2018 and Cummings was arrested twice in 2016 for violations.

Beyond the three individuals, the court ruling has larger implications for other homeless individuals in Ocala. Since September 2015, the city of Ocala has convicted a total of 264 homeless individuals. According to the press release, collectively, these individuals have been sentenced to 5,393 nights in jail and been charged over $300,000 in court fees.

“This is really huge for the individuals without housing in Ocala,” said Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida and co-counsel to this case.

The lack of available shelter space for homeless individuals in Ocala was presented as further evidence to the unlawfulness of the ordinance. Azis explained that the average amount of homeless individuals sleeping in unsheltered locations is disproportionate to the number of emergency beds available in Ocala homeless shelters.

Azis stated that on any given night, there are at least 150 homeless individuals sleeping in unsheltered areas throughout Ocala and Marion County. However, there are only 65 emergency shelter beds available at the two homeless shelters in the area.

The eligibility requirements of the shelters further limit which individuals are able to stay in a shelter. For instance, the Salvation Army only allows a homeless individual to stay for a total of 14 days a year.

Though there is a lack of shelter space, Anderson stated that there has been no requirement for the Ocala Police Department to contact the shelters to determine whether there is availability for a homeless person before making an arrest.

“In the absence of the availability of shelter or housing, cities cannot put people in jail because they are human beings who require sleep,” Anderson said.

Anderson also explained the importance of the court’s ruling on the city’s trespass policy. Currently, the trespass warning slips issued do not have an expiration date, so the individual remains trespassed from the property until the warning is repealed. However, the city of Ocala currently does not have a procedure in place to challenge a trespass warning to overturn it.

Anderson stated that the importance of this issue lies in the fact that once a person receives a warning, merely being present in a public space becomes a crime. This becomes an issue for those experiencing homelessness, all of whom rely on being in public places.

“When you are getting banned from parks, it starts to really have an impact on your ability to be physically present in public places in a city,” Anderson said.

McArdle, Ramsey and Cummings have all been trespassed from various public parks in the city of Ocala as well as the local Salvation Army shelter.

In terms of the open lodging ordinance, the court ruled that the city of Ocala is prohibited from arresting a homeless individual under the open lodging ordinance without first inquiring about the availability of shelter space.

The court also ruled that the city is prohibited from issuing trespass warnings without a manner of due process. The trespass warnings previously issued to McArdle, Ramsey and Cummings were also overturned by the court.

Anderson believes that the rulings on this case speak to how many cities do not have sufficient shelters or services available to meet the needs of every individual experiencing homelessness in the community.

Azis is optimistic that other Florida cities will take note of this case and begin to adjust their policies surrounding homeless individuals in their area.

“Our expectation and our hope is that other cities will understand and learn about this case and understand that the law that was applied here by the court in this instance applies to other cities throughout the country and Florida,” Azis said.

Haleigh is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.