The Pensacola City Council recently passed a trio of ordinances that critics claim “criminalize homelessness.” The new laws prohibit “camping” on public property, washing and other activities in public restrooms and public urination and defecation.
Council muscled the ordinances through weeks of public outcry and hours of public comment. During the five-hour marathon session in which the proposals became law, Police Chief Chip Simmons took a breather outside city hall just after council passed the “no camping” rule.
“We are not waiting in the wings to arrest people,” Simmons said. “There’s a perception that a lot of people are going to be arrested. I’m not convinced that that’s the case. Maybe I’m an optimist.”
Simmons exchanged pleasantries with attorney Alistair McKenzie, also standing outside city hall, and headed back into the meeting. McKenzie—already involved in several lawsuits with the city—had a different take on the ordinances.
“I’ve been retained, I’m looking into it,” the attorney said. “From a legal standpoint, the laws are way over broad and there’s a host of Constitutional issues.”
Mayor Ashton Hayward dropped the proposed ordinances in early May, contending the measures were necessary in the city to “promote the aesthetics, sanitation, public health and safety of its citizens.” City Administrator Bill Reynolds had already prepped council in December that the proposals—originally making an ill-fated appearance a year prior, against the backdrop of the Christmas season and recent Occupy Pensacola campout on the city hall lawn—would soon be returning.
“I do hope that we will see that ordinance again,” Councilwoman Megan Pratt replied to Reynolds’ email. “The timing of it last time was terrible—energized people who had been camping in public, cold snap, close to Christmas. Let’s look at it in May.”
“Deal,” Reynolds told Pratt.
The city administrator began the revived conversation with city council via a presentation by the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless. He said the presentation was meant “to kind of educate council” and assured them that the administration also intended to “educate” the area homeless population about resources available locally.
“That’s something that we’ve never done before, that is a piece that has been missing from what we do,” Reynolds said, explaining “proactive steps” the city intends to couple with the “little outreach piece” that EscaRosa does.
The EscaRosa presentation, however—delivered by Executive Director John Johnson—ironically highlighted the area’s growing homeless population and dwindling resources to address such a problem.
“This will definitely impact the homeless population,” Johnson commented on the proposed ordinances a week after his presentation.
The coalition director—who spoke out against the ordinances at following council meetings—said he was unaware that his presentation was slated for the same agenda as the ordinances. The administration had never consulted him about the proposals or their impact.
“It probably would have had a better outcome if not only myself, but other homeless providers, were contacted,” Johnson said.
That apparently wasn’t in the plan.
“I spoke to Mr. Johnson this morning and wondered if you would like to meet with him to discuss the homeless community and resources in our area,” Marcie Whitaker, the city’s housing administrator, wrote to Reynolds in mid-April.
“No reason for me to meet with him, Marcie,” Reynolds replied.
The city council maintained a predictably divided vote-line throughout the homeless-ordinance discussion—6-3 in favor, with councilpersons Sherri Myers, Charles Bare and Gerald Wingate opposing—except for the public urination and defecation proposal, which garnered unanimous support. That vote-divide is likely to hold as the council considers one more proposal in June, this one aimed at “aggressive solicitation, begging or panhandling.”
In response to public concern, the council plans to convene a task force to explore the city’s homeless issues by September. It’s the silver lining homeless advocates are clinging to in an otherwise brutal defeat.
“I want to work with the council in whatever way I can to find solutions,” said Johnson, who plans to sit on the task force.
The passage of these ordinances proved an uncomfortable process throughout. During the first public reading, council defended the morality of its decisions to a group of visiting Boy Scouts. On the night of the second and final reading, Council President P.C. Wu found himself in the awkward position of silencing a visiting Chinese journalist who had caught wind of the proposals.
“I heard about some of the ordinances that are being discussed tonight,” began Jin Rah, through a translator, “and if I may express some personal opinion, which might be unpopular.”
Rah was visiting as part of the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council. City council congratulated him on the honorary citizenship earlier bestowed upon him by Mayor Hayward, but was not interested in hearing his views on the proposed ordinances.
“Well, actually, a greeting will be fine,” Wu interrupted the visitor, offering him three words in Chinese: “What I just told them was ‘welcome, hello and goodbye.’”
After returning to his seat, Rah whispered the rest of his interrupted sentiment.
“There should be a more lengthy and careful investigation of what the people that are homeless need—what kind of help they need and want, and what pedestrians want,” the Chinese journalist said.