Charlotte rejects anti-camping law
Measure was not a solution to issue of homelessness, critics say
By CHRIS GERBASI, Correspondent
Published: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
CHARLOTTE COUNTY – Following emotional pleas from the public to help Charlotte County’s homeless population, county commissioners narrowly rejected a proposed no-camping ordinance that critics said targeted the group.
The commission on Tuesday voted 3-2 against a ban on living or sleeping outdoors in a temporary shelter on public or private property without permission from the landowner. Commissioners Robert Skidmore, Richard Loftus and Adam Cummings voted against the ordinance; Commissioners Bob Starr and Tricia Duffy were in favor.
The proposal stemmed from complaints from residents and business owners about “vagrants” living in parks or near stores. Laws against street drinking and aggressive panhandling were previously passed this year.
About 15 people, some quoting from the Bible, the Constitution and the Statue of Liberty creed, addressed commissioners. Punta Gorda lawyer Michael Haymans and others questioned the proposed ordinance’s constitutionality. Some speakers said they were formerly homeless or work with the homeless. They said they fear the trend in the county to criminalize everyday activities of homeless people: sleeping, eating, sitting, begging.
“I’d like to see the trend in thinking change to something more positive,” said Angela Hogan, executive director of the county Homeless Coalition.
Several residents asked commissioners to find compassionate alternatives to help those most likely to be affected by the ordinance, the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people living outdoors in the county. Suggestions included creating a tent city or new shelter on county property.
“I don’t understand why this commission is spending so much time looking at short-term punitive measures instead of short-term curative measures,” resident Michael Hirsh said.
Starr insisted that this is not a “homeless issue,” but rather about property rights and trespassing, and he had support from Duffy and just three residents who spoke.
Starr has said he wants to clear out all the unlawful campsites in the county as public health hazards. If he can get support from the board, he hopes to initiate a cleanup plan with the Public Works Department. He said there are an estimated 109 campsites, and the county has contacted most of the property owners, many of whom live out of state. He said about 70 percent of the respondents have granted permission to clean up the properties.
Skidmore said he favored such a cleanup, but argued that trespassing laws already exist to deal with illegal camping. He and Loftus questioned the costs involved with the ordinance for enforcement, prosecution and incarceration.
Cummings, who also voted against the drinking and panhandling ordinances, again said he was uncomfortable with treading on personal freedom.
“I oppose this ordinance because the intent behind it is unconstitutional,” he said.
County attorney Janette Knowlton said the language was based on a Sarasota city ordinance.
One provision would have given violators the chance to be taken to a shelter rather than be charged with the second-degree misdemeanor.
She said that if no bed space was available, the offender would be given a warning and not be arrested. But with typically few beds available at the coalition’s 53-bed shelter, Hogan said the ordinance would be “unenforceable.