Florida City Shows How Not to Deal With a Homelessness Crisis

In 2013, the city of Tampa, Florida passed an ordinance that made it a crime to ask for money downtown and in other parts of the city, citing public safety and the need to boost tourism and local business. Officials said being asked for money in certain areas might make people feel vulnerable. 

While the law kept the city's tourists safe from the scourge of charitable giving, it didn't shield them from all public nuisances. As a lawsuit against the measure notes, the ordinance is tailored to allow religious proselytizing and political speech. So while hectoring passersby about the End Times or accosting them with political petitions is protected free speech, no matter how aggressive, vocally asking for money, no matter how politely, is not. The law complemented a 2011 ordinance making it illegal to ask for money on roads—except, oddly, on Sunday—yet contained a loophole allowing newspaper vendors to sell to drivers. 

In May, Homeless Helping Homeless, an emergency shelter provider, launched a lawsuit claiming the laws curtail the group's free speech rights and cut into their funding. The group sends members to populated parts of the city to collect donations, using locked boxes to ensure the money goes to the organization and not individuals. In response, the city reversed the restrictions on road solicitation, but is fighting to keep the panhandling ban in the city (there's already an aggressive panhandling statute on the books that is not targeted by the lawsuit). 

Now, the city may demolish one of their shelters after shutting down two of their buildings. The group's founder, Adolphus Parker, believes they're being targeted as punishment for the lawsuit. 

"It's not about the facility, it's about the lawsuit," Parker says, pointing out that in the six years he's run the shelters he's never had trouble with the city. "How dare us sue them?" he says, sarcastically. "They can't afford for us to win." 

The group's troubles with the city began when police raided their headquarters in September, confiscating computers, phones and files, claiming Parker had violated Florida "statutes regarding towing and storing vehicles" while running an unrelated business, according to NBC Miami.  The City of Tampa Code Enforcement (Division of Neighborhood Enhancement) then ordered them to vacate two of their properties, citing building code violations. Parker moved the people who'd been staying in one shelter to tents in the backyard, but the city recently sent them a notice of violation telling them to "cease illegal use of property." 

"It's illegal to sleep in street, can't be in our own backyard," Parker says, referencing a Tampa ordinance that prohibits sleeping or storing belongings in public.  

On Monday, Tampa's code enforcement agency issued a search warrant for one of the properties to determine whether it needs to be demolished as well. Members of the group believe they're being targeted—they say that buildings on their street that are in worse shape are being left alone —but city officials contend that the properties are a safety hazard and that the city has no ulterior motives. "That's way off base," says Sal Ruggiero, Manager of the Division of Neighborhood Enhancement. "They're not being targeted by the city, there are major issues with the property. It's inhabitable for humans."

There's no definitive way to know if the group is being purposefully targeted, but at the same time, there seems to be little consideration for where people served by the shelters will go if the group is shut down. And Florida's city governments have not historically distinguished themselves for humane treatment of the homeless. 

In 2011 the city of Orlando jailed Food Not Bombs activists for feeding the needy in a public park. Last November Fort Lauderdale police put a 90-year-old in jail for running a food-sharing program. Much like other Florida cities -- and cities all over America -- Tampa's city ordinances present a web of restrictions on activities performed by the homeless. In addition to restrictions on soliciting donations, in 2013 the city passed an ordinance allowing police to arrest people found sleeping or storing belongings in public, Think Progress reported. The Department of Justice recently argued that it's unconstitutional for cities to ban life-sustaining activities like sleeping in public without also providing adequate shelter as an alternative. 

Tampa boasts some of the highest homelessness rates in the country, according to a 2012 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

"We give free shelter for people with no money, no job, and who don't meet criteria for public assistance," Parker says of his group. He says the city's system of homeless shelters is so overstrained that often overfilled shelters send people to him, as do police and hospitals.  

The group offered showers, a place to sleep, lockers, TV, internet, phones, a place to be during the day, a nice cup of coffee in the morning, and, well, the dignity of working for a common cause: shelter employees also help run the homes, and have jobs ranging from handyman to Treasurer. The group helps indigent people get birth certificates, IDs and other documents required to secure public aid. Parker says that although the properties need work, the group doesn't have the money to make the fixes or enough time before the city acts. 

Sixty-two year old Fernando Lopez says that as a handyman he can pretty much do it all: plumbing, electrical wiring, repairs. He could never get paid enough to his work to afford a place to live when he moved to Tampa and has been at Homeless Helping Homelesas for a year and a half. 

He does not have a very good plan B if the group has to shut down operations. "It's very difficult. I don't even want to think about it," he says. "Homeless Helping Homeless has been a blessing in my life." 

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