My patience for Florida is wearing thin.
Last week, Tampa City Council passed Item #60, a new city ordinance that would allow police officers to arrest someone for sleeping or "storing personal property in public" with a 4-3 vote. In other words, city council members voted to criminalize homelessness in the city of Tampa, without offering any plans to create temporary or transitional housing. Meanwhile, according to a 2012 study, Tampa has the highest population of homeless people in its size class. So apparently, incarceration is how they choose to solve the problem.
Naturally, many homeless advocates are outraged. Demonstrators outside of City Hall have protested the decision, holding signs reading "Sleeping is Not a Crime," and "Homelessness is Not a Choice", guided by a central question: Where are they supposed to go?
As Tasha Rennels, Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida, notes, "Most shelters in the Tampa Bay area charge $10 to $42 per night for a single person. They aren't free." And even these are full on a nightly basis, with a waiting list of over 100 people each night. This fact was even acknowledged by city council members, who, in all of their graciousness, said that the law would not be enforced if shelters were unavailable. They suggested that homeless individuals be taken to a shelter outside of city limits; but of course, plans for city services that would be required to transport the homeless in and out of them have not yet been put in place.
It's curious that incarceration was the proposed solution to Tampa's homelessness population, considering their overcrowded prison problem. As of May, Pasco County jail had its highest head count ever, with 1,550 prisoners in an area designed to hold 1,200. Prison overcrowding has been linked to serious negative psychological consequences on inmates and increased inmate violence, along with the obvious strain on local and federal resources.
More importantly, this new ordinance encapsulates just how much we demonize and dehumanize the homeless. With this, we're not locking up "criminals": we're locking up army veterans, LGBT youth, the mentally ill, single mothers and their children, and people who just happen to be down on their luck. We've punished them for existing as such. Besides the question of who has a right to public spaces if not the general populace, we must ask ourselves: is getting rid of homelessness about getting rid of the homeless?
Fortunately, homeless advocates in Tampa are not giving up. They plan to create a network of organizations that focus on homeless relief and community awareness events, along with advocating for Housing First models. So the homeless can sleep soundly knowing that at least some are looking after them — as long as they don't do so in the streets.