DeSantis signs homeless restrictions

An unidentified homeless man hunkers down under a plastic tarp near Lake Tuscawilla in Tuscawilla Park as high wind and heavy rain from Tropical Storm Nicole move through Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted March 20, 2024 | By Jim Turner
Florida News Service

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed a controversial bill designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping in public places, continuing to say he doesn’t want Florida to become like places such as San Francisco.

DeSantis, who signed the measure (HB 1365) during an appearance in Miami Beach, said the bill will keep sidewalks from becoming “tent cities” and “ensure that Florida streets are clean and that Florida streets are safe for our residents.”

Democrats and homeless advocates who opposed the bill contended it would increase local-government costs and drive homeless people into wooded areas.

But DeSantis said the bill “is the absolute right balance” of providing safety while addressing issues facing people who have fallen on “hard times.”

“I don’t think there’s any other way you could approach it and expect to have a result different than what’s happened in places like San Francisco and New York City,” DeSantis said.

The bill will prevent cities and counties, starting Oct. 1, from allowing people to sleep on public property, including at public buildings and in public rights of way. It would allow local governments to designate certain property for sleeping or camping if the sites meet standards set by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Such areas, which could only be used for one year, would have to include access to such things as restrooms and running water, have security and be deemed alcohol- and drug-free. Also, the sites could not harm values of nearby properties or safety.

The law also will give legal standing to residents and business owners to file civil lawsuits against local governments that allow sleeping or camping on public property.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the measure “targets individuals who are homeless and creates a scenario for local governments, where the only option — if they can’t meet the demands of the Legislature — is to potentially criminalize homelessness.”

“So, not only are we not offering clear solutions,” Eskamani said. “We’re actually making a bad situation worse and not helping people get out of that economic instability that they’re facing.”

Jeff Brandes, a former Republican senator who founded the non-profit Florida Policy Project think tank, cautioned the measure is an “unfunded mandate” on local governments.

“Nobody kind of said, ‘What happens next’ and followed the natural progression of that question,” Brandes said March 8 during an appearance on the “Florida This Week” program on WEDU in the Tampa Bay area. “I think when you get to the end of that, you realize people are still going to be living on the streets. Either the cities are not going to be able to do that or the jails are going to be full. And you’re going to hear from the sheriffs that you’re going to need to expand the jails.”

An annual report from the Florida Council on Homelessness released last June said “over the past five years, Florida has seen a 9 percent increase in the rate of Floridians experiencing ‘literal homelessness.’”

While acknowledging the accuracy of recent homeless counts were limited because of COVID-19 restrictions, the report pointed to issues such as rising housing costs.

“According to an analysis conducted by the Government Accountability Office, for every $100 monthly median rent increase there is a 9 percent increase in homelessness,” the council report said. “Therefore, Florida’s unprecedented increases in rent rates will have a significant impact on the rate of homelessness.”

DeSantis has repeatedly compared Florida’s handling of homeless people to other parts of the country.

During his Jan. 9 State of the State address to open this year’s legislative session, DeSantis said, “Cities throughout the land have decayed: Washington, D.C. has experienced its deadliest year in more than two decades and San Francisco has fallen into a ‘doom loop’ whereby crime, homelessness and drug abuse have eviscerated the quality of life.”

He held a news conference Feb. 5 in Miami Beach to support the homeless restrictions and stood behind a podium that said: “Don’t Allow Florida to become San Francisco.”

House bill sponsor Sam Garrison, a Fleming Island Republican who appeared at Wednesday’s bill-signing event, also described “the great cities that we grew up idolizing” being “brought to their knees,” where families aren’t comfortable to have their kids walk the streets, and business owners close shop “because it’s just not safe.”

The House voted 82-26 to pass the bill March 1, and the Senate followed with a 27-12 vote on March 5.

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