Ocala makes 'Hall of Shame' report for arresting homeless people who sleep outside

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click to enlarge Ocala makes 'Hall of Shame' report for arresting homeless people who sleep outside
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Ocala is already facing a class-action lawsuit for criminalizing people with literally nowhere to lie down, but now the city has been placed among the “Hall of Shame” for “routinely punishing or harassing un-housed people for their presence in public places.”

The “Housing not Handcuffs” report, released this week from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, surveyed 187 urban and rural cities across the country and found that over the last 13 years there’s been a significant increase in policies that punish the homeless for “life-sustaining conduct,” which include things like sleeping, sitting or lying down, and living in vehicles within public space.

“We refer to these policies and their enforcement collectively as the ‘criminalization of homelessness,’ even though these laws are punishable as both criminal and civil offenses,” read the report.

“In Ocala, Florida, homeless people are strictly policed in accordance with Ocala’s draconian anti-homeless ordinances. It is illegal to rest in the open on public property, which has been heavily enforced by the city,” continued the report. “The city’s ‘Operation Street Sweeper’ and aggressive policing have even led to a federal lawsuit on behalf of three unhoused residents. These three plaintiffs have collectively spent 210 days in jail and been assessed over $9,000 in fines, fees, and costs due to enforcement of the trespass and unlawful lodging ordinance alone.”

Besides Ocala, other areas listed in the report include, Sacramento, California; Wilmington, Delaware; Kansas City, Missouri; Redding, California; and the entire State of Texas.

Last September, homeless advocate groups including the Southern Legal Counsel, attorney Andy Pozzuto, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against the City of Ocala.

The 67-page class-action lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, was on behalf of named plaintiffs Patrick McCardle, Courtney Ramsey, Anthony Cummings and more than 200 other homeless people who were arrested under the city’s open lodging ordinance, a rule that actually makes it illegal to sleep, and in some cases even rest, in public spaces and parks.

One major focus of the lawsuit takes issue with the ordinance’s overall selective nature, like how it’s only illegal to sleep outside if the person reports being homeless, while allowing others to sleep outside without being jailed or fined.

“We refer to these policies and their enforcement collectively as the 'criminalization of homelessness.'"

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“These are people who need support, housing, jobs, and services,” said Chelsea Dunn, an attorney with Southern Legal Counsel. “Instead, they are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of jail, debt, and other collateral consequences. The city of Ocala needs to provide adequate shelter and social services instead of trying to solve homelessness through arrests and harassment.”

A survey conducted over the last two years by the Marion County Homeless Council found that Ocala's homeless population had more than 330 homeless adults living without children, and half of these did not have shelter.

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