We want you to know that a bill sailing through the Florida Legislature will likely cost you more for law enforcement, jails and attorney fees — while not solving the problem it was intended to: the growing number of people with no choice but to live on our streets.
Senate Bill 1530 and its companion, House Bill 1365, sound reasonable on some levels. They would prohibit unsanctioned sleeping or “camping” in our public parks or on our public streets and rights-of-way, unless a city or county establishes a designated, permitted place with 24-hour security, restrooms, running water and mental health care.
The concept is absolutely noble; no one wants people to have to sleep or live on public property. But the bills include some completely unworkable requirements, and there is no funding available to make them viable.
Foremost, if a city or county can’t afford to provide such a place – and the expense to do so statewide would add up more than the entire state budget for homelessness – the bills enable any person or business to sue the jurisdiction if there are still people living on the streets, in parks, etc.
So one of two things will happen. The cities and counties will need to arrest everyone on the street – which is currently considered unconstitutional unless there is space in local homeless shelters, which there isn’t, thus leaving the cities and counties vulnerable to civil-rights lawsuits. Or the cities and counties will ignore the statute, and so they’ll face lawsuits from residents and businesses upset over the public presence of people who are homeless. In fact, jurisdictions are likely to face both types of lawsuits.
In addition, any designated space the cities and counties establish for an authorized encampment cannot “adversely and materially affect the value or security of existing residential or commercial properties.” Most likely that will be an industrial zone, with no public transportation, access to other social service providers or access to jobs. No one is served well if people experiencing homelessness lose their job so that a city or county can comply with this legislation.
We completely agree people should not be living on the streets – and we are grateful that lawmakers are shining a light on this tragedy. It’s bad for our neighborhoods, our businesses and our tourism economy. But most importantly, it’s inhumane and potentially deadly for the people forced to do so. But the increasing number of people on our streets are there because of the devastating outcome of a housing affordability crisis, with rents for the average two-bedroom apartment skyrocketing up over $600 a month in five years. Three-fourths of the people now becoming homeless have never been so before.
It is not, as the Cicero Institute falsely claims, a failure of Housing First policies. Study after study has shown that getting people into housing with supportive services – which is what we do – is over 90% successful in keeping people stably housed. (It is a myth that most unsheltered people prefer to live that way.) The problem now is that more new people than ever are losing their housing because they can no longer pay their rising rents.
It is not only people with mental illness or drug addiction living on our streets these days – although they matter too. It is also our veterans. Our families with minor children. Older teens coming out of foster care. Young adults without families to help them. It is, increasingly, our seniors on fixed incomes – especially older women who are widowed or divorced. And it’s our theme-park workers struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food and health care and our neighbors who became ill with cancer or heart disease and spent everything they once had on medical bills.
What they need is not a sanctioned encampment all living together with little chance of getting out of homelessness, but innovative, humane, fiscally sound housing solutions with a roof over their heads. Please, let’s not waste our precious tax dollars on more lawsuits and arrests.