The ACLU of Florida, Southern Legal Counsel and pro bono attorney Andy Pozzuto have filed a lawsuit against the city of Ocala to call into question the city’s policies for banning homeless people from sleeping in public areas.
The lawsuit says that arresting homeless people who sleep or rest in outdoor areas is cruel and unusual punishment and violates their civil rights.
The suit adds that it’s unconstitutional to criminalize the homeless for “engaging in life-sustaining conduct essential to survival.”
Jacqueline Azis from the ACLU Foundation of Florida said she hopes city officials will recognize that how they treat their homeless 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.”
Ocala City Attorney Patrick Gilligan said that it’s the lack of funds that limits the support the city can provide for the homeless.
“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.”
Bob Drake of Drake Properties owns two building in Ocala and said that the lack of shelter in the city has consequences.
“We have had people break into our building just to sleep in there, probably because they were cold,” Drake said.
“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?”
Chelsea Dunn from the Southern Legal Counsel said that she hopes the lawsuit will convince the city to stop criminalizing homeless because it leads to a cycle of poverty.