A new ordinance proposed by Mayor Ashton Hayward has been described by citizens as “sick,” “bonkers” and “immoral and very, very sad.”
Pensacola City Council members were slightly more measured in their response to the mayor’s proposal, calling it “unconstitutional,” “too broad” and “absolutely, quite frankly, disgusting.”
The ordinance Hayward is proposing—which would create Section 8-1-22 of the city code—prohibits camping on city property, reportedly in an effort to improve public safety and aesthetics. The proposal is based on a similar ordinance in Orlando and defines camping as sleeping in a tent or sleeping bag or temporary shelter, as well as covering up with a bedroll or cardboard or pieces of newspaper.
“It’s very clear the ordinance targets one group of citizens, and these citizens are homeless,” said City Councilwoman Sheri Myers, during the board’s Committee of the Whole meeting December 12.
While the proposed ordinance seems to have been born out of the city’s legal wrangling with Occupy Pensacola—a protest movement intent on pitching camp at city hall—people expressed concern that the real casualties of such a rule would be the area’s unfortunates, its homeless population.
“—and now you want to take away their blankets?” Katie Krasinski asked the council. “They will freeze to death and they will die.”
The proposed ordinance drew a diverse crowd to speak out against it: young, old, Occupiers, Republicans, veterans, dirty hippies and men of God. No members of the public spoke in favor of the ordinance.
“We’re here today to represent our friends who we know personally and care deeply about,” said Jeff Henry, who works with Nothing Lost Outreach to provide the homeless with hot meals and showers.
Joshua Wallnofer, head of Klondike Baptist Church, said he was also concerned about the ordinance’s effect on people without a home.
“We weep with them every week,” Wallnofer said, adding that the measure would only drive the problem to another area, or worse. “That’s the best that this will do—pass on pain and problems. At worst, it will contribute to their demise.”
Father Nathan Monk, who works with the area’s homeless and is also a vocal Occupy supporter, drew disturbing parallels for the council.
“This council would have arrested Mary and Joseph this time of year,” Monk said, alluding to the biblical couple’s no-room-at-the-inn dilemma. “And then you would have called DCF and had the Christ Child hauled off.”
Council members had no stomach for the accusations. Mauren DeWeese said such hyperbole—like comparing Hayward to Hitler’s Third Reich—was uncalled for.
“Don’t come in here and do that,” she scolded the gallery. “This is not about my faith. My faith is deeply intact.”
Councilwoman Myers drew a line connecting the proposed ordinance to a similar one enacted in 1968, which she feels was meant to stop the spread of Martin Luther King, Jr.-inspired tent cities that year. Councilman John Jerralds, an African American, agreed, calling the 1968 rule “totally unnecessary and ridiculous.”
“I am having a unique experience, here,” Jerralds said, recalling his Civil Rights-era youth.
Councilwoman Megan Pratt said she wasn’t sure what problem the ordinance would really address. Myers said that her narcoleptic mother could, at times, find herself unwittingly in violation of the ordinance. Several members expressed concern that the ordinance had not received input from City Attorney Jim Messer.
In the end, the council decided to send the ordinance back to the mayor to be rethought. They did the same with a similar proposed ordinance that sought to clamp down on using public restroom facilities for activities such as bathing and shaving.