James McManus didn’t choose to be homeless.
He worked 16 years as a carpenter before getting injured a few years ago. After losing his job, it wasn’t long before he lost his home.
McManus, 50, doesn’t want to be a problem, he just wants a place to sleep, he said to city leaders Thursday night.
“I don’t want to break a law. I don’t want to be someone’s problem,” McManus said. “I don’t want these officers to spend their time worried about where I’m sleeping.”
Regardless, the City Council unanimously approved three rules targeting the homeless, making it illegal to sit on the sidewalk and camp overnight and also increasing the penalty for soliciting for up to 60 days in jail. Officials will vote once again on the ordinances at their Aug. 2 meeting before the laws go into effect.
Miguel Hall sees himself as an investor in downtown. He lives in a condominium at Station Square and sees the homeless on the street from his balcony. He has to explain it to family and friends if he has them over.
Hall said he counted 15 homeless people on his walk from his condominium to City Hall.
“It’s a bad situation,” he said. “Whatever we have to do to get the issue resolved I’m all for it.”
One resolution gives police more enforcement power.
Already, individuals are are not allowed to solicit from drivers in travel lanes on public streets and while in public parking lots and garages. If caught, violators are fined.
By moving the solicitation ordinance to Chapter 21 of the city’s code, violators now could face up to 60 days in jail, depending on the arresting officer's discretion.
Rob Surette, assistant city attorney who drafted the ordinances, said the rules would still allow fundraising groups like the Muscular Dystrophy Association, firefighter boot drives and individuals who apply for a permit to solicit 10 days of the year.
“When an ordinance has attached to it the penalty of incarceration officers then have the power to take that person into custody,” Surette said.
Surette said that the restrictions for sitting or lying down are narrowly defined to the areas where the city and private development has invested millions in revitalization efforts.
He said the ordinance making it illegal to sit or lay down is modeled after similar ones in St. Petersburg and Seattle. The ordinance (8347-12) makes it unlawful to sit or lay down in the right-of-way in the East Gateway District, downtown and within the Beach Walk area from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It would include places like public docks, piers, boardwalks and sidewalks.
Violators would not be fined on the first offense and would be given the chance to relocate to where sitting or laying down is allowed. Sitting or laying down is allowed in these instances:
- In a park or public beach
- Because of a medical emergency
- Sitting on a chair or bench as it is intended
- Use of a wheelchair, a baby carriage, or like conveyance
- As part of activities like a parade, festival, performance, rally, demonstration or meeting
- Sitting at a sidewalk café
- Sitting or laying down when it is an integral part of a protest accompanied by incidents of speech such as signs or literature explaining the protest
Surette said that there are a number of parks near the banned areas that potential violators could go to, rather than jail.
“There’s no intent to fill the jails with violators of these ordinances,” Surette said, adding that he will be instructing an hour-long course for officers before enforcement of the ordinances begins.
Scott Baker, the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, spoke in opposition of the laws, which he called ridiculous and unnecessarily punitive.
“I urge you not to punish the poor,” Baker said.
McManus spends most of the $150 a week he scrapes together paying someone to be able to use their shower. He sleeps most nights on the street somewhere in the city.
He has tried staying at Safe Harbor, but he can’t get a ride to be at Labor Ready by 5 a.m. in order to get a $7-an-hour job for the day. The earliest he can get there taking a bus is nearly 7 a.m., by then all the jobs are gone, he said to the council.
“I could ride my bicycle but it’s very unsafe,” McManus said.
Councilmember Paul Gibson asked to see if something can be done to help McManus get to work, possibly a shuttle service that could take the nearly 20 other homeless in search of work to day labor.
“If there’s some issues with Safe Harbor we should make some changes to the process,” Gibson said.
Leaders approved the ordinance (8313-12), which makes it unlawful for someone to camp outside, unless it is approved by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, as a way to get more of the homeless to Safe Harbor and other social service facilities.
Surette said the ordinance would not apply to someone using a park during regular hours. Even parks open 24 hours day the ordinance is only valid if an area is being taken over as a camp site. It is modeled after laws in use in Sarasota, Orlando and the National Parks Service, Surette said.
Officers will be required under the ordinance to give a person with no permanent or temporary residence two chances to find a shelter or some other place to relocate before citing them with a violation.
If public or private shelter space is not available in Pinellas County, officers will not be able to cite the violator. Surette said it is unconstitutional to make sleeping a crime if the government does not have another place available. Officers are also required to ensure any of that person’s private property is stored at the station for up to 60 days.
McManus left after the vote on the final ordinance passed, wheeling his bike to where he could find a place to rest and be at the Labor Ready parking lot by 5 a.m.