Friday, May 24

‘Are we going to lock them up?’ Florida governments, nonprofits seek answers after new homeless law signed

Local governments and nonprofits are looking for answers after Florida passed a new law that critics are calling a ban on homelessness.

Gov. Ron Desantis on Wednesday signed House Bill 1365, which forbids people from sleeping or camping in public places, calling it a “quality of life issue.”

“Where are we supposed to go?” asked Steven Tuscanini, who is currently experiencing homelessness himself. “It’s a ridiculous law.

“Where’s the help from him?” added Morris Murray, who is also homeless.

Murray and Tuscanini are two of many people that seek shelter and help from the Source, a nonprofit in Vero Beach that provides opportunities for work, nutrition and housing through their Dignity Bus.

Many of those who spoke Thursday to WPTV reporter Kate Hussey said they recently became homeless due to the rising cost of living.

“It’s consistently growing,” Anthony Zorbaugh, The Source’s founder, said.

According to data from the Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council, as of January 2023, there were 925 documented homeless on the Treasure Coast, a one-year increase of nearly 10%.

Zorbaugh said in 2023 that 70% of the people coming to the Source had become homeless for the very first time. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2023 report said the Treasure Coast, of all suburban areas in the nation, has the highest percentage of chronic homeless who have no place to go.

“People just have no place to be,” Zorbaugh said.

When DeSantis signed the bill Wednesday, he not only prevented those experiencing homelessness from camping in public places but instead gave counties and municipalities the authority to come up with a designated space for those experiencing homelessness by October.

Zorbaugh said he’s been fielding calls from other counties, who are now asking for a Dignity Bus shelter of their own.

Simultaneously, Zorbaugh wonders how to handle an expected influx of people in need of shelter.

“Numbers are rising and we have to figure out where that funding is coming from,” Zorbaugh said.

Commissioners in St. Lucie County are now contacting the cities of Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie, along with nonprofits, to seek out a solution.

“Every year when Tallahassee’s session ends, there always seems to be some unfunded mandates that come down to the local level,” St. Lucie County Director of Communications Erick Gill said. “The state says, ‘This is what you have to do,’ but you have to pay for it.”

Gill said finding funding and finding space is an issue, but if counties and cities don’t designate a homeless area, they open themselves up to litigation. In other words, they could be sued.

“We’re not sure how enforcement is going to go, is that going to be an extra burden on law enforcement?” Gill asked. “And what happens to those individuals? Are we going to lock them up in the county jail and cost taxpayers more money that way?”

Gail Harvey, the president of Tent City Helpers in Stuart, said in 2022 that the nonprofit served an average of 30 people per day who are experiencing homelessness. This year, the average jumped up to 49.

“On Monday, we saw 61 people,” Harvey said.

Harvey is now asking Martin County Commissioners to turn the fairgrounds into a designated camp, calling for a solution.

“The fairgrounds isn’t around other houses. It’s got the railroad track on one side, the bus depot on the other,” Harvey said. “It wouldn’t interfere with neighborhoods. It’s close to Walmart.”

Martin County commissioners haven’t agreed, but a spokesperson told WPTV in statements that the county is reviewing the bill and working with nonprofit partners to provide assistance.

The county also noted their Homeless Prevention Program funding from HUD has been reduced by $91,404. The county essentially lost an entire grant.

Martin County is already in compliance with HB 1365.

Homeless individuals are prohibited from camping on city streets, sidewalks and parks. They are instead placed in temporary shelters and monitored by law enforcement agencies. 

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