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Advocacy Groups Sue City Of Ocala Over Homeless Arrests

The ACLU of Florida, Southern Legal Counsel, and pro bono attorney Andy Pozzuto on Thursday filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Ocala to challenge the city’s policies prohibiting open lodging on public property by the homeless. 

The lawsuit argues that arresting people who identify themselves as homeless if they are sleeping or resting while awake in outdoor areas is cruel and unusual punishment and violates their human rights to due process under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

The lawsuit adds that it is unconstitutional to criminalize the homeless for “engaging in life-sustaining conduct essential to survival.” The Ocala ordinances regarding trespassing and open lodging can be foundhere.

Jacqueline Azis from the ACLU Foundation of Florida said she hopes Ocala city officials realize that the way they treat their homeless population must be adapted to more constitutional and humane initiatives. 

“If a couple goes out to a park and they’re having a picnic and happen to fall asleep during the picnic, that is really not going to get them arrested,” Azis said. “But if you have a person who is laying down in the park on a blanket simply because they are homeless and tell an officer they are homeless, they could be arrested for essentially the same activity someone else could do that actually has a home.”

The formal complaint was filed on behalf of plaintiffs Anthony Cummings, Courtney Ramsey, and Patrick McCardle, as well as the rest of the homeless community in Ocala who have been arrested for sleeping or resting in public outdoor areas. Collectively, the plaintiffs listed have spent 210 days in jail and been charged more than $9,000 in court costs and fines for sleeping or resting in public areas. 

Chelsea Dunn from the Southern Legal Counsel said this case is about many more people than the three named plaintiffs.

“While we only have three named plaintiffs, their experiences are very typical of the entire homeless population in Ocala,” Dunn said.

Neither Mayor Kent Guinn nor Ashley Dobbs, the city’s marketing and communications manager, would comment on the lawsuit. 

Ocala City Attorney Patrick Gilligan said it’s a shortage of money, not a lack of compassion, that limits the supportive services the city provides. He said the groups filing the lawsuit should have taken a more political route, rather than a judicial route.

“We live in a democracy. The lawyers need to convince their fellow citizens to vote in five like-minded councilmen with the same sensibility about how much money should be spent on these social services that we never have before and have no experience in doing,” Gilligan said. “But I’m pretty confident that is not what is going to get voted for.”

Gilligan also stated that when groups want to create social change, they must be honest about what that change will look like and how much it will cost taxpayers and other city-funded programs such as the fire department. 

“Every dollar must come from somewhere, and the City of Ocala just does not have the funds to do it,” said Gilligan.

According to the 2019 annual report of Florida’s Council On Homelessness, 475 individuals in Marion County do not have fixed or adequate housing. There are 13 physical locations for resources on the Ocala Homeless Shelter Directory, including Interfaith Emergency Services for women and families, the Salvation Army emergency shelter, and Shepherd’s Lighthouse Transitional Housing. However, each shelter has its own rules and requirements that determine eligibility for a shelter bed. This includes length-of-stay limits, bringing identification documents, passing background check requirements, age restrictions, and for some, referrals from another agency. 

Marion County has 132 transitional housing units and 171 emergency shelter beds, according to the 2018 Housing Inventory Count for emergency shelter beds, 57 are reserved for single females ages 18 and older, 24 are reserved for men and women younger than 25 years old, and 90 are for single women, men and households with children. The 2019 Council on Homelessness report noted that at least 179 individuals have no shelter on any given night.

Bob Drake of Drake Properties owns two buildings in downtown Ocala and said he has witnessed the consequences of lack of shelter space for the homeless outside his office doors.

“We have had people break into our building just to sleep in there, probably because they were cold,” Drake said.

He said the homeless sometimes litter the area with trash, which business owners have to pick up. 

“I agree with what the city is trying to do, but I also see the other side of that,” Drake said. “Homelessness is a tough issue. The business owners downtown don’t want to lose customers because of them being approached by the homeless and potentially being scared off, but on the other hand, where are they supposed to go?"

Marion County Homeless Council Executive Director Angela Juaristic said homeless individuals often struggle to get landlords’ approval for housing due to a record of arrests and fines from their past. She added that many homeless people have jobs, but the jobs don’t pay enough to cover the cost of stable housing, which can lead to job loss and a cycle of poverty.

“Each time someone is arrested, they’re further traumatized, and it makes it harder for them to get help,” Juaristic said. “The landlords see these arrests and don’t understand that there are no other options for the homeless.”

Dunn from Southern Legal Counsel suggested that the most successful approaches to reducing homelessness include providing supportive services, supportive housing, and available and accessible shelter space.

Enforcing ordinances against open lodging and trespassing is a part of an initiative, called “Operation Street Sweeper,” that Ocala adopted in 2002 and amended in 2015 to improve the downtown Ocala atmosphere. The initiative is part of the city’s broken-windows policing approach, which was first developed elsewhere in the 1980s to reduce levels of serious crimes and with that, fear and resident withdrawal from downtown, according to the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

Juaristic said she feels in some ways that Ocala has already stepped up by putting together an outreach team through the Office of Homeless Prevention, which works to link the homeless to helpful services. She said she would just like them to continue to work toward trying solutions that don’t include criminalization of the homeless.

“When I think of the term ‘street sweeper,’ I think of something that is washing the trash out of the gutter. It’s more than divisive; it’s almost discriminatory,” she said. 

Dunn said that criminalization of homelessness is a huge problem, but so is the way the city has chosen to deal with the homeless community in general.

“We are hopeful that the city will prepare a more comprehensive and supportive array of services to the homeless community,” she said. 

Gilligan said elected officials have great compassion for the homeless and that people don’t enjoy seeing fellow citizens living on the streets, but the city also cannot tolerate lawlessness.

“The moral posturing I’ve seen that the city has it out for the homeless is so far from the truth,” Gilligan said. “I guarantee my elected officials are all ears for solutions.”

Dunn said she hopes the lawsuit will persuade the city to stop criminalizing homelessness because it leads to a cycle of poverty.

 “We hope that instead, the city will provide more appropriate services and shelter space so folks can get back on their feet and back to work,” she said.