Friday, December 01, 2006


The homeless community fights the anti-lodging ordinance.

By Joel Rozen

Published 11.29.2006

Since a circuit court judge declared an anti-lodging ordinance constitutional in both Sarasota and Manatee counties earlier this month, the homeless have been left to wander the night streets, unable to rest in any one location.

They're tired. And fed up.

The homeless and their advocates say this is just the latest affront by local government, and they are beginning to mobilize, holding regular planning sessions and organizing protests. But they've got their work cut out for them.

"Since 2002, we've been tracking criminalization of the homeless across the country," says an audibly irritated Michael Stoops, executive director of the D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless. "And clearly, tourist cities are the worst." Last January, Stoops' group declared Sarasota the nation's "meanest city," and the acts against those with no place to sleep haven't stopped.

"We were struck by Sarasota's persistence," Stoops says, alluding to the area's latest anti-homeless measures: a soup kitchen that was shut down last month, a mess of zoning restrictions limiting the Salvation Army's expansion options. And now the anti-lodging ordinance. When it was upheld after two previous rounds of protest, the decision was interpreted by many as a final, decimating blow to the estimated 3,000-plus who, according to advocates, have already requested emergency shelter in Sarasota and Manatee counties this year.

The ordinance bans loitering citywide and enables police officers to arrest those caught sleeping outside. Many on both sides of the issue expect a number of homeless people to leave as a result.

"I really think this speaks to a lack of compassion for the less fortunate in this city," says Cat Christensen, a volunteer counselor at local homeless resource center Resurrection House. "Putting someone in jail costs a certain amount of money, and I can't think that's the only answer."

Her office, shared by a few of the other volunteer counselors, is modest in size, almost swallowed by the rest of the massive building. Dwarfing most of the neighboring structures on Kumquat Court, the nearly 20-year-old Resurrection House logs almost 33,000 visits a year. Its directors claim they can't afford to put up homeless clients for the night -- the Salvation Army handles that responsibility -- but since the ordinance passed, Resurrection has been seeing far more tired faces.

A frail, frustrated-looking man dressed in a tattered sport coat and slacks pushes his walker right up to Christensen's doorway. Albert Montes de Oca, 54, wants to check on the status of his Greyhound bus out of the city.

"This is no place for me, man," he says. De Oca explains that he fractured his hip last month and doesn't know why the Sarasota Hospital won't take him back in.

"It's been three months of hell ever since I arrived. Money disappears like boiling water." His eyes widen as he signals steam in the air with his hands. "Now all I want is out."

That may be the ordinance's goal -- to push homeless people away. But several lawyers and activists contacted by CL think the counties have a responsibility to help those in need. Local media have been awash with news of Fort Myers-based attorney Chris Cosden's appeals at the district courts against the ordinance -- the latest reports quote a disgruntled Cosden vowing to take this month's verdict to the Second District Court of Appeals -- but there are grassroots fighters as well.

Some of them know the issues at stake firsthand. "They force you to crawl under crevices at night," Resurrection House regular Brian Smith, 35, says of patrolling police officers. "But they always seem to find you. And it's so cold out, you'll be shaking when they slap those cuffs on."

Smith is eager to divulge some of his plans for resistance. "I'm not running away from this," the Cleveland native says. For the past month, he and numerous other homeless citizens have convened at Five Points Park next to Selby Library for what he calls "protest planning meetings" and hot meals.

The events are sponsored by local chapters of activist collective Food Not Bombs, and led by students from Ringling and New College.

"It's a sight, we've got hundreds of homeless people there, all ready to storm the city courthouse," Smith says of the meetings. While he admits the Dec. 8 protest is still in the planning phase, he and other members of the group are determined to spread word of the ordinance's injustice.

Currently serving as intermediaries between the local homeless and the National Homelessness Coalition, Jackie Wang and Reva Castillenti, 18 and 19 respectively, are the Food Not Bombs organizers from the two colleges. Both from St. Petersburg, they serve as voices for the homeless, but are adamantly not the only voices.

"We didn't want our role [at the meetings] to be like, 'This is for you,'" says Wang, sitting in the Ringling School's cafeteria. "We just want the homeless to be aware of their fundamental rights."

Castillenti agrees. "We want to put the homelessness situation in a larger context," she says. "We also believe the city should take more responsibility for its homelessness problem -- they should abolish [the ordinance] until they can provide more shelters." With the aid of several other organizers, the two now have a website ( advertising their agenda and encouraging other concerned citizens to help them rally on Dec. 8.

"Right now, we're looking into getting it all OK'd by local officials by securing a permit," says Wang. "We want this to be as civil as possible; we mean no harm."

Not all homeless advocates agree that abolishing the ordinance would be the right way to go, however. "This whole anti-lodging thing has gotten a lot of press recently," concedes Adrienne Lazeroff, executive director of Sarasota's Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, "but I'm not sure getting rid of it will prevent the situation, and that's what we'd like to do."

Lazeroff sits in the United Way building that has housed the Partnership since its inception last year. "Really, what we should be doing is getting to the root of the problem, with meetings to brainstorm ways of finding jobs for these people and financing aid organizations."

But Christensen, having assisted at Resurrection House for just over a year now -- reconnecting families, digging up birth certificates for job hunters, even helping out patrons in the free laundry room -- is already seeing the anti-lodging law's effect.

"The ramifications of this type of ordinance are obvious," she says, pulling her chair up to a desk lined with fliers and notepads. "People now have to walk all night long, there's no place to hide; I've come in here in the morning and found people sleeping while in line for breakfast."

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?